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European-American adventure of 'Tintin'

The first motion-capture project directed by Steven Spielberg, "The Adventures of Tintin," is shaping up as one of the year's biggest movie events. Its production budget -- split between two studios, Paramount and Sony -- reportedly amounts to $250 million, with another $100 million spent on marketing and distribution. And its Wednesday release gives it a high-profile head start on the Christmas weekend's glut of competition.

So where did this potential blockbuster hold its premiere in October? Not Los Angeles. Not New York. Not even America.

"We premiered the film in Belgium and France," Spielberg said on a visit to Manhattan last weekend. "We knew that our worst critics, if there were going to be a horrible public outcry against us, were going to come from Belgium and France. So that was the first thing we did."

Outcry? Why would a family-friendly action-adventure film require shuttle diplomacy? One reason is that Tintin, a globe-trotting young sleuth created by Belgian author-illustrator Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi), first appeared as a comic strip in a French-language newspaper in 1929 and went on to appear in 23 books that have sold more than 200 million copies in at least 50 languages. In Europe in particular, the odd-looking fellow with the tuft of ginger hair is one of the most treasured and iconic figures of the modern era.

"People learn to read through Tintin -- it's that kind of level," says Jamie Bell, the British actor who plays the character in the film. "It's built into the mainframe culture through learning, through education, but also through the parents. This is a generational character."

Yet even after more than 80 years, Tintin has never quite cracked America. "The States can be a bit insular, and in 'Tintin' you basically travel all over the planet," said Francois Lauzon, a self-described Tintinologist and a writer-editor for the Montreal Gazette. "Or maybe it's the fact that the character was a bit too French for Americans. He looks funny."

An old-fashioned mystery

Spielberg's film would seem to translate into any language. It's an old-fashioned mystery involving a sunken ship, a 17th century scroll, a nefarious treasure hunter named Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and the boozy but lionhearted Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Fans of the books will recognize other characters, like the unflappable butler Nestor, the opera-diva Bianca Castafiore and, of course, Tintin's faithful terrier, Snowy.

Still, the negative reactions Spielberg worried about did come from some corners. In England, which also embraces Tintin as its own, early reviews were harsh. Tom McCarthy, author of the book "Tintin and the Secret of Literature," called the film "an assault on a great body of art," while a critic at London's Guardian newspaper likened Spielberg's adaptation to "a rape." Other judgments ranged from "a kind of airless pastiche" to "painful."

Despite all that, "The Adventures of Tintin" rocketed to No. 1 at the overseas box office in November, pulling in $56.1 million in 19 territories, according to Box Office Mojo. In France, it became the highest-opening nonsequel film ever.

Spielberg clearly takes satisfaction in this. The public response "just drowned out the few criticisms," he said, sitting in his Manhattan hotel room with his feet jauntily perched on a coffee table. "And I think they were just totally shouted down by thousands, and now millions, of fans overseas that basically ignored the few carping critics."

The movie has been on Spielberg's mind since at least 1981, when he noticed that French reviews of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" consistently mentioned Tintin. Intrigued, Spielberg sought out the books and discovered what were essentially little movies, drawn in Herge's distinctively bright, clean style.

Searching for a script

In 1983, not long after Herge's death, Spielberg met with the author's widow and secured the film rights to Tintin. (One early casting idea: Walter Matthau as the irascible Captain Haddock.)

Decades passed while Spielberg searched for a workable script (the current film combines three Tintin books, leaning heavily on 1943's "The Secret of the Unicorn"), and the project languished for some time. But in 2004, Spielberg found new inspiration in an unlikely place: "The Polar Express," Robert Zemeckis' pioneering but widely reviled motion-capture experiment, which still remains emblematic of the format's worst shortcomings, particularly the notorious glassy "deadeye" problem.

"I saw that if the technology develops beyond the nascent brilliance of the first mo-cap movie ever made, this may be the medium to convey the right message to honor Herge's illustrations," Spielberg said. His instincts were validated while hanging out on the set of James Cameron's "Avatar," the top-grossing film of all time.

Working with WETA Digital ("Avatar," "The Lord of the Rings"), Spielberg created a film that essentially transposes Herge's illustrations onto the screen. Though Tintin himself looks photo-realistic, the comedic detectives Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) have tiny eyes and gigantic mustaches, while Captain Haddock's bulbous nose pokes out above an impossibly bushy beard. (As to the deadeye effect, WETA effects supervisor Jamie Beard said in an interview, "We don't think about it," though WETA director Joe Litteri said later at a news conference, "We put an extraordinary amount of detail into the eye.")

The right format

Spielberg has no doubts that motion-capture was the right format. "I would have overstylized a live-action movie," he said. "I would have had to do what Warren Beatty had to do with 'Dick Tracy,' and put everybody into heavy prosthetic makeup. And I think that style would have smothered the humor and the adventure of the Tintin movie I had in my head. And animation allowed me to do that instantly."

With $200 million in ticket sales overseas, "The Adventures of Tintin" may not necessarily need American audiences for its success.

Already, producer Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings") is set to direct a second feature, and a third is planned. Geographical concerns aside, " 'Tintin' is just fun," Spielberg said. "It's just a huge ride that I wanted to take the audience on with me."

A writer with European flair

If Tintin is "an ambassador of Europe to the world," as one critic called him, that may be because his Belgian creator, Georges Remi, better known by his pen name, Hergé, was in some ways such a typical European. Born in 1907, he saw tremendous changes in 20th century Europe and reflected them in the Tintin comic strip he drew for newspapers and in his 23 Tintin books.

Like many Europeans, Hergé sometimes found himself on the wrong side of history. His 1931 book, "Tintin in the Congo," for instance, essentially served as propaganda for the occupation of what was then a Belgian colony; the natives say things like, "White man very great!" The 1942 book, "The Shooting Star," originally featured a seemingly anti-Semitic caricature named Blumenstein; in later editions, he hails from a fictional country, São Rico.

Hergé also made the common mistake of taking Hitler seriously as a world leader. Even when the Nazis invaded Belgium and shut down the newspaper Le XXe Siècle, where Tintin began, Hergé moved to the German-controlled paper Le Soir and created the purposefully uncontroversial story "The Secret of the Unicorn," upon which Steven Spielberg's adaptation is largely based. Hergé was later branded a collaborator and barred from newspaper work.

Hergé eventually apologized for some of his outmoded attitudes and political ideas. In the years after World War II, mental breakdowns forced him to temporarily stop creating new Tintin works, though today his creation remains a beloved international icon.

"He's been studied immensely in Europe," says Francois Lauzon, a Tintin expert and a writer-editor at the Montreal Gazette. "When the stories were done in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, you can see the political vision of people, how they perceive the outside world. Through Hergé's cartoons, you can see the way people in Europe thought at that time."

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