Steven Spielberg once more retreats to his comfort zone of 1930s matinee serials in “The Adventures of Tintin,” an animated escapade of intrepid reporting, historical intrigue and globe-trotting perils.
With his first film since 2008’s abysmal “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Spielberg this time adapts the Belgian comic book “Tintin,” which ran from 1929 to 1976. The outcome is not cinematically consequential, but it is fun, lively and arguably the best-rendered of the “motion capture” projects popularized by “The Polar Express.”
Sporting a red quiff of hair and Boy Scout ideals, Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a daring journalist who comes into possession of a triple-masted model of the famed ship Unicorn. He learns the item is sought by both Interpol and a professorial scoundrel named Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Apparently, the ship holds clues to a vast treasure lost at sea during the 17th century.
Convinced Tintin is key to this puzzle, Sakharine imprisons him on the SS Karaboudjan. There Tintin meets the likewise captive Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a perpetual drunk who is also part of the elusive mystery — whether he knows it or not.
“I don’t remember anything about anything,” Haddock confesses.
Teaming up against Sakharine, the two embark on a quest through oceans, deserts, cities and skies in search of the Unicorn’s fortune.
The internationally beloved Tintin may be unfamiliar to American audiences, but this Nickelodeon Movies coproduction displays all the hallmarks of the cable channel that is ambrosia to the nation’s preteen set. It has an earnest/resourceful hero, an abrasive/unreliable sidekick and an impossibly dumb/dumber ally (the infuriating policemen Thompson and Thomson, voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). Great characters? Heck no. But they are cozy archetypes any 10-year-old can pick out of a lineup.
Throw in a cute fox terrier named Snowy (yet another feisty movie pup a la “The Artist” and “Beginners”), and there is enough fodder for dozens of green-screen exploits to come. (Peter Jackson is slated to direct the sequel, with Jackson and Spielberg co-directing the theoretical third installment).
The film’s trickiest maneuver is dealing with the unabashedly un-PC Haddock. It was probably far more hilarious in the pre-Exxon Valdez era to feature a ship’s captain of dipsomaniac proportions. Motion-capture master Serkis (of Gollum fame) plays the boorish seaman for laughs. This doesn’t always work — because the DTs ain’t exactly funny — but at least the drunkenness leads to the story’s signature gag of powering a seaplane with Haddock’s combustible breath.
What does consistently work is the tone of “Tintin.” Spielberg keeps a Hardy Boys-style innocence to the sleuthing while maintaining an Indiana Jones-type intensity for the relentless action sequences. The centerpiece involves a breakneck chase through land, air and water in a fictional Moroccan city. But the highlight is a flashback to a boarding battle between pirates and sailors, with the primary combatants vying to stamp out a gunpowder fuse.
Unlike Spielberg’s upcoming drama “War Horse” — a movie too hokey for adults and too violent for younger children — “The Adventures of Tintin” understands its target audience.
The film’s tagline exclaims, “Discover how far adventure will take you.” So how far does Spielberg take you?
For the Nickelodeon crowd, it’s plenty far.
Everyone else? Just far enough.