Never in a million years would I think that I’d be able to see not one, but two new films from my favorite director. But Steven Spielberg, in all his (infinite) glory, was kind enough to drop us two new works this holiday season. Together they compose a fascinating portrait of one artist’s many faces: “The Adventures of Tintin” is a high-tech, fast-paced doozy of an adventure, and “War Horse” a classically styled evocation of John Ford-esque grandeur with absolutely one goal — moving you to tears.
These films couldn’t be any more different from one another, but feel like no other master could have produced them. That’s Spielberg for you, a man of both one face and many styles.
Spielberg’s last film, the fourth “Indiana Jones” installment, was savaged by both critics and audiences alike. I firmly stand by my initially positive critique, and he seems to be channeling that character’s pulpy, adventurous spirit into “The Adventures of Tintin”. It’s a collaboration with some of the biggest figures in geek culture — “Doctor Who” writer Steven Moffat and “Scott Pilgrim” helmer Edgar Wright hammered out the script, and Peter Jackson of “Lord of the Rings” served as producer.
“Tintin” is a sugar-rush of a film almost to a fault — this is a movie with no patience for nuance or silence. I suppose that’s a side-effect of the film’s three leads being a drunken sailor, a teenage journalist (!!!), and a giddy Wire Fox Terrier. Spielberg has gone to great lengths to ensure that “Tintin” is essentially one massive set-piece — with threats ranging from flooding cities, crashing planes and nefarious eagles. It’s all in good fun, and perhaps one of “Tintin”s greater flaws is that the characters never seem to be in any palpable danger.
The actors are all quite solid here — Daniel Craig, playing against type as a crinkly villain, is appropriately menacing, although he never comes off as more than a motivated grouch. Jamie Bell captures all of the zest and wonder of the Tintin character quite nicely, and Andy Serkis in his second great computer-assisted performance of the year, is a wonder. His Captain Haddock is one of the most memorable characters of the year; a manic, stumbling drunk with a heart of gold. The film never veers into the darker side of his drinking and mainly uses it to comedic effect, but all in good taste.
I suppose this would be an appropriate time to mention that “Tintin” is an animated motion-capture film, meaning the characters are played by actual actors yet their environments are entirely computer-generated. “Tintin” is a leap forward for the medium, building off the foundation of works like “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express” to fulfill motion-capture’s true promise — convincing, recognizably human characters, captured amidst spectacularly gorgeous scenery. Disposable entertainment is rarely this memorable.
On the flip-side of the Spielberg coin this week is “War Horse”, and Spielberg’s aspirations are clearly a bit higher –or lower, depending on your respect for the institution of the Academy Awards. Few people have as tight a grasp on aesthetic as Spielberg, and he makes damn sure you know it — be it with John Williams’ sweeping music, whose strings alone can manipulate one to tears, or his camerawork, calling instantly to mind melodramas from the ’40s and ’50s. The fact that “Love Actually”‘s Richard Curtis penned the script should give one a good enough idea of the sap and sentimentality on display here.
But the motivation of the sappiness is not manipulation — it’s simply an earnestness to tell a story, stir emotion, and rouse at the conclusion. “War Horse” walks a tight-line and succeeded quite wildly with me.
“War Horse”s title is as self-explanatory as it gets, but also has a stinging irony about it. Albert is a young farmboy in 1910s’ England, who develops a connection with a horse from his first day of life. The film chronicles the life of the horse, nicknamed Joey, as World War I strikes and he passes through owners of all walks of life. Joey is in fact a “war horse”, but that’s because humans made him that way– against his will, against his nature. In this way Spielberg suggests neither side of the war is exempt from moral depravity, a fairly sobering truth amidst all the sweep and the sap.
The film takes on an almost episodic nature, moving from the horse’s tenure at young Albert’s farm, to his stints with both sides of the war, to the way in which he inspires a young, sickly French girl and her grandfather.
“War Horse” is an unabashed epic. In anything from its epic battle sequences to the character-driven moments of triumph, Spielberg is swinging for the rafters here with his scope and our emotions. His camera trails the events with an eye for both intensity and wonder. This film doesn’t have anything particularly new or original to say — the “war is hell, nature is sacred” subtext is recycled and pandering. But originality is not the key here — it’s the skill with which the themes and emotions have been adapted. Tintin: B+, War Horse, A-