Taking most of its cues from the book The Secret of the Unicorn, the film finds intrepid newspaper reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) inadvertently wrapped up in years of conflict when he buys a model ship that contains a secret clue to an incredible lost treasure. With his faithful dog Snowy at his side, he embarks on a globe-trotting journey to solve the mystery, only to pick up a pursuer in the form of the sinister Sakharine (Daniel Craig), and a partner in drunken and disgraced Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who bemoans his inability to live up to his family's name when he's not drowning his sorrows in any and all brands of spirits.
Given how hard Robert Zemeckis has been working for nearly a decade to get the audiences to embrace motion capture, it's almost embarrassing how easily Spielberg upstages him when it comes to utilizing the technology. Although the film starts out a little slow, biding time with minor action beats, the film more than makes up for it in the second half, which features not one but two knockout sequences: a pirate flashback that begins with the usual cannonballs and ends in flames, and an incredible chase sequence through the fictional city of Baghar. Both sequences really embrace the ability to place the camera anywhere and stage anything writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish can dream up for Spielberg to direct, utilizing dizzying unbroken shots and the kind of stunts that would be physically impossible in live-action. The film also finds the perfect balance between Hergé's original artwork and photorealism: all of the "locations" are gorgeous, and Tintin and Haddock are so convincing in some sort of palpable, tangible way that it's hard to believe they don't really exist.
Of course, part of that is the performances, and, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes before it, the film is almost single-handedly carried along by Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, whose grizzled sea pirate is as fun a character as I've seen in a movie all year. He swiftly locates Haddock's crusty, disheveled soul and imbues everything he does with it, from the goofy comedy on down to a moment when Tintin is prepared to give up. Jamie Bell is a smart choice to play Tintin, and Craig as is enjoyable as Sakharine, but neither character has as many facets to play as Serkis does in Haddock. There's also no fighting a clever dog, and the animators' depiction of Snowy is right on the money.
Spielberg does still indulge a few of his weaknesses, the most prominent being cutesy comedy. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are really somewhat disappointing as Thompson and Thomson, cluelessly trying to find the trail of a local pickpocket; their contribution to the movie amounts to silly voices and falling down. Set-ups and pay-offs seem occasionally unbalanced: a herd of cows are alarmed but don't turn into a stampede, mid-movie explosion seems to foreshadow another that never occurs. A bit involving the retrieval of keys includes two of the biggest laughs in the movie, but the scene settles for the gags instead of going big with the suspense, which would be more fun and benefit the payoff that follows. It's also interesting to consider whether reshoots are a standard part of the motion capture process. There are a handful of moments where dialogue doesn't flow, or characters will talk about things that are obvious based on the visuals, and it's easy to believe these moments would've been trimmed out of a live-action movie.
Still, these are minor quibbles, noticeable only during the moments the viewer is not enraptured by what's happening on screen, which should be few and far between. As a young child, my life was surprisingly free of film, and as a result, I didn't see the Indiana Jones films, E.T., Close Encounters, or Jaws until I was a teenager, at which point years of general pop-culture awareness may have diluted the experience for me a little, even if I love them as much as the next person. Lucky me, then, that Spielberg still had The Adventures of Tintin up his sleeve, which put a stupid grin on my face during many of its most dazzling sequences. It's a wonderful year-end treat that proves it's the man that makes the tools, and not vice versa.
(The 3D effect is understated but highly relevant, providing depth and scope during the film's best moments. It won't revolutionize the way the viewer looks at 3D, but one can only ask for so much.)