Spielberg delivers two Oscar favorites

by David Dixon


Bravo, Steven Spielberg. Not many Hollywood directors can say they have released two outstanding movies within days of each other. Spielberg has done just that with these big-screen achievements.

The Adventures of Tintin

“The Adventures of Tintin” is a motion capture adaptation of the internationally popular comic book series by Belgian artist, Hergé. Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a journalist who loves to solve mysteries and always seems to find himself in perilous situations. Accompanied by his loveable dog Snowy, and new friend alcoholic merchant marine Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), Tintin goes on a dangerous search for a sunken ship known as the Unicorn.

Of all the motion capture pictures to be released recently, such as the corny “Mars Needs Moms,” “Tintin” is a better example of how this kind of technology can be used to create a memorable voyage. This goes beyond the visuals on screen; even the misfires are aesthetically pleasing. The enjoyment in “Tintin” lies within the three screenwriters, Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, each of whom are very comfortable giving this type of spectacle the kind of wit and intelligence needed to make it stand out from generic dreck.

Spielberg has never directed a full-length animated feature before, and saying “Tintin” is a strong debut for him would be an understatement. It is easy to imagine he had a blast while making this production because there is a playful tone throughout most of the running time. Several individual scenes are breathtaking to watch, while others have the zippy energy of a grade-A theme park attraction.

With so much eye candy, does “Tintin” have a soul? Surprisingly, yes, through the bond that forms between Tintin and Haddock. Bell is perfectly cast as Tintin, creating a whip-sharp lad without being an obnoxious know-it-all. While Bell shines, the best material is saved for Serkis. Serkis has become a scene-stealing character actor as evidenced in his dramatic, computer-generated roles in “The Lord of the Rings” as well as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Here, Serkis gets to let loose with an array of deliberately goofy dialogue. Tintin and Haddock help each other in times of need, and not always because of an action sequence. This relationship adds a surprising amount of depth to such a fast-paced affair.

Only adults will nitpick at flaws in the villain, Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who lacks three-dimensionality. Craig’s vocal delivery is entertainingly menacing, though the character is similar to an over-the-top evil mastermind typically featured in Saturday morning cartoon shows. Still, it must be remembered the film is meant for family audiences and designed to appeal to anyone older than seven.

“The Adventures of Tintin” is Spielberg’s most fun and upbeat film in years. It concludes with a clear opening for a sequel, which may sound groan-inducing, but the buildup to this moment is so clever that hopefully a second installment will be just as delightful as the first.

War Horse

If “The Adventures of Tintin” is from the imagination, “War Horse” is from the heart. Based on the book and play of the same name, “War Horse” is a beautiful exploration of what people and animals will do out of love.

Set in England during World War I, Joey is a horse sold to a family during an auction. The son of the buyer, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), immediately grows close to Joey and they become great companions. Unfortunately, Joey is sold to the cavalry to help the British in battle. This sparks the beginning of an odyssey in which Joey will discover firsthand the ugly and miraculous nature of life.

Spielberg consistently moves the audience, and does so by way of his genuine investment in the material. He cares about every major character Joey encounters, which leads to personal attachment to more than a few individuals.

The cast is strong throughout, and it is hard to believe numerous horses play Joey. They blend so seamlessly it becomes easy to accept Joey as a single, memorable horse. Many of the actors who walk on two feet also deliver fine performances. Irvine is so kind, natural and determined as Narracott, it is amazing to think this is his first major leading role.

war horse

There is also an acclaimed French actor, Niels Arestrup, who is in the picture less than the boy and his horse, yet he leaves just as big of an impression. He plays an elderly man who meets Joey through unlikely circumstances. Arestrup can be poignant with just a simple gaze and he provides so much loving warmth his presence is missed while he is away.

John Williams’ score deserves Oscar consideration for its impact. At times, it is reminiscent of the grand style of an old-fashioned classic such as “Gone With the Wind.” The best aspect of the soundtrack is the recurring theme that symbolizes the affection between Albert and Joey. Whenever the motif plays, it adds such a bittersweet dimension to their companionship that viewers may get choked up.

The slowly revealed message in the film is that of the moral code of men. There are moments when soldiers on both sides of the battlefield show their own sets of principles, more complex than the rules of battle would suggest. It is an interesting lesson and a bit shocking coming from the man who made “Saving Private Ryan,” which depicted opponents of the U.S. as ruthless enemies.

Should tissues be brought to “War Horse”? Better bring a box to be safe. Joey is introduced as a baby and to go on a grand emotional journey with him is to empathize deeply with the horse. By the time the final 15 minutes arrive, Joey’s fate leads to a few human interactions that may result in uncontrollable crying. Instead of feeling manipulated, the climax and resolution earn its pathos.

As far as affectionate entertainment goes, it is hard to beat “War Horse.” The epic is a cinematic highlight of the winter season.

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