Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

16 January 2012


I suppose that it seems logical to speak about both of Steven Spielberg's 2011 films together, and since I saw The Adventures of Tintin recently, I think I will.

If you know me even a little bit you probably know that I find Spielberg's work... there's no perfect word for it... irritating, frustrating, maddening. Something along those lines. Enervating, perhaps.

Mostly what I resent with Spielberg is the way the films manipulate the viewer, tugging insistently at the heartstrings and moving me, inexorably toward tears. I always feel rather empty after this sort of thing, but Spielberg movies almost always do it to me. War Horse is no exception, and I resented it for its almost cynical powers of manipulation.

Actually, though, War Horse is not a very good movie. It's first twenty minutes or so are shot like comedy, with saturated colors, a silly script, broad performances (including an absurdly cartoonish turn by David Thewlis, who plays Lupin in the Harry Potter franchise), and a running joke with a duck. In a way, this first segment of War Horse is a kind of children's movie, something heartwarming but not one bit serious. But, then War Horse becomes a WWI film, and the film leaves its first few characters behind in favor of the British army, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The film, in fact, continues to leave behind its characters. I was delighted, for example, to see David Kross in this movie, but he is only in War Horse briefly and then he, too, is left behind by the film.

In short, I rather thought War Horse was a mess. It is insistently silly and at all times spends its time begging for a suspension of disbelief that it constantly pushes to its limits and beyond. Aside from that first segment, the actors are almost uniformly wonderful: Hiddleston, Cumberbatch and Kross, of course, but also Niels Arestrup (from Un Prophète), Jeremy Irvine, Toby Kebbell, and Matt Milne. And yet... well the film is so ridiculous that it was hard even to take these very good actors seriously.

As for The Adventures of Tintin, I really liked it. First off, the animation is absolutely superb. I have decided that I pretty much love mocap, and the movie is worth seeing for the animation alone. But more than that, Tintin knows that it is a silly movie. This is a movie that expects its storyline to be silly and just runs with it. It also expects us to think that its storyline is silly. I mean by this that I think Tintin works where War Horse doesn't because Tintin treats me as though I am reasonably intelligent whereas War Horse never does. Tintin is self aware, where War Horse has no idea how silly it is being while asking us to treat it seriously.

I do have another gripe to make about these movies – both of them this time – and that is there nonsensical treatment of violence. War Horse is a film about one of the most disastrous global conflicts of all time, and yet there is no human blood shed in this film. Cumberbatch and Hiddleston attack a bivouac of German soldiers using swords and are in turn machine-gunned down by the Germans. Yet there is no blood on camera. Now, I know the film is silly, and I have already argued precisely this, but this is actually part of the problem. From the violence in War Horse, one might think that war doesn't actually hurt people and machine-gun rounds cause nothing but vague stomach pains and fainting.

But I enjoyed The Adventures of Tintin thoroughly. I found it consistently surprising. I was ahead of it occasionally, but I loved the editing and art direction, and there was some gorgeous movie-making on display. The transitions between the past and the present, the real and the imaginary, are breathtakingly achieved. Mostly, it was just so fun. And the usual Spielberg manipulation at work seemed to fit the generic conventions of the animated children's film. I didn't resent being tugged at nearly as much as I do in his films for grownups. All in all, I had a great time.