Tintin in the Uncanny Valley

Given the high level of pre-release publicity that has been carefully paced for over a year now, this December’s big 3D release is not only the first half of a Spielberg double whammy, premiering almost at once the first two films he’s directed since the much-lamented and best-forgotten fourth Indiana Jones movie: in a strategic move that has paid off before (Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993; Amistad and The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997), Spielberg is following a relatively long sabbatical leave from the director’s chair with back-to-back releases of one special-effects behemoth with mass commercial appeal (The Adventures of Tintin), and one prestige picture that’ll be out in time for awards season (The War Horse). Critical response to the first set of trailers for WWI-film The War Horse have been mixed, while the ongoing campaign to raise interest for Tintin has been to unveil the occasional image from the mo-cap film, and is now picking up with the release of the first full-length trailer.

The first trailer did a pretty good job at communicating the hyperreal qualities of the digital animation work, all reflective surfaces and moody lighting, and the scale of the narrative, moving from city flea markets and chiaroscuro-lit back alleys to David Lean-sized deserts and stormy oceans. As smooth and superficially impressive as this visual spectacle may be, the teaser trailer played remarkably coy with the one thing most viewers will be most interested in: to what extent Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson have succeeded in bridging the uncanny valley by creating an animated world populated by characters that are both cartoony and photorealistic, while also allowing for audience identification. In other words: the main question on which the success of the film will hinge is to what extent the human face, famously described by Klaus Kinski as “the most fascinating landscape,” can be recreated as a digital attraction.

Only the last shot in the teaser trailer gave us a glimpse of a close-up of Tintin, and although it seems expressive and nicely detailed, these few seconds of an animated face aren’t quite enough to judge what the answer to that key question might be. Now, with the release of the second trailer, we get a much better look at the characters, their voices, and some of their interaction with props and surroundings. It’s a fun and lively affair, and the characters are an interesting blend of Hergé-based ligne claire cartoonishness and finely detailed photorealism. But both the voice acting and the movements seem strangely wooden in almost exactly the way that Beowulf failed to breathe the spark of life into its digital avatars. Unlike the Na’vi of  Avatar or the more stylized human characters in recent Pixar films, the digital cast of Tintin still seems very much in risk of getting stuck in that uncanny valley that has been claiming one box office victim after another since that Final Fantasy movie back in 2001.

One can’t help but wonder, even though it’s obviously too early to judge, whether this approach and its ostentatious position as a showcase for new technology that is being touted as “revolutionary” suits the material. A large part of the film’s international success may depend on the approval amongst millions of fans of the comic books, which are famous for combining simple, cartoonishly drawn characters that navigate a remarkably detailed, almost photorealistic environment (according to Scott McCloud, anyway).

It wouldn’t be surprising therefore if Tintin as a film character in this new blockbuster doesn’t turn out to hold all that much appeal to contemporary audiences, the character’s androgynous, strangely blank presence always rather stern and humorless, while the prominent role of his dog Snowy all but guarantees a plethora of digital dog reaction shots in the film. (But then, Snowy will probably end up being considered the most convincing character in the whole thing, so in this case I guess that makes sense…)

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One Response to Tintin in the Uncanny Valley

  1. Pingback: Tintin in Africa: ‘not racist’ | Dr. Dan’s Medicine

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