Regardless of whether they enjoyed the movie, many critics have found Tintin himself to be just a little bit "creepy" or "unsettling." Here at The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky called the film's character's "disturbingly plastic." Maybe that helps explain the relatively soft $22.3 million domestic box-office haul over the long holiday weekend.
Instead of trying to bring to life Herge’s beautiful artwork, Spielberg and co. have opted to bring the movie into the 3D era using trendy
motion-capture technique to recreate Tintin and his friends. Tintin’s original face, while barebones, never
suffered for a lack of expression. It’s now outfitted with an alien and
unfamiliar visage, his plastic skin dotted with pores and subtle wrinkles (one can’t help but recall Homer Simpson’s terror at the vision of a real-world Bart and Lisa). While all the characters sport some kind of cartoonish features—especially their ears and noses—their photorealistic eyes are somehow blank. It’s especially odd considering that it is the goal of animation to
exaggerate features into even more outrageous modes of expression. Perfect mimicry in itself pointless. In bringing them to life, Spielberg has made the characters dead.
It begs the question of why Spielberg, presumably a student of film and aware of how CGI characters have been received before, didn’t simply go
with a live-action adaptation. History has proven audiences to be rather skittish around digital representations of themselves. Non-human entities like
Andy Serkis’ Golum or Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes have had no problem wooing viewers. It’s only when they attempt
to mimic reality, instead of warp and play with it like the friendly caricatures of the Pixar universe do, that they fail. Take a look, for example, at
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which boasted ultra-realistic hair and facial modeling but flopped at the box office. Or think back to The Polar Express (a.k.a. Mr. Mustache’s Creepy Kiddie Abduction Train), the motion-captured cast of which one reviewer called "soul dead."
These characters, along with the cast of Tintin, sit comfortably at the bottom of the fabled uncanny valley, the robotics principle that states that
the closer an artificial character or mannequin comes to resembling a human face without actually pulling it off, the more unsettling its
presence will become. All kinds of reasons have been given for this phenomenon, from the incongruence between appearance and motion, to an evolutionary trigger against those who appear sickly or defective.
But supposing we did achieve perfect a computer generated replica of reality. What would be the point? Pixar, the studio that can safely be declared
the leader in the field of emotive animation, has realized the pitfalls and avoided creeping out audiences by wisely heading away from photorealism. Just look
at Carl and Russell from 2009’s Up. In
reality, they barely even qualify as human, and yet their characters work well on screen because they are the animated embodiments of emotions, not
people. Spielberg decided not to follow. Instead he’s stuck at the bottom of the uncanny valley with Tintin staring back
at him through his dead eyes.