Welcome back, Steven. After a so-so run culminating in the regrettable "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the most successful filmmaker of the modern era proves he's still got the goods. "The Adventures of Tintin" is a tightly edited avalanche of thrills and a barrow load of laughs. Spielberg's first venture into animation is his most delightful dose of pure entertainment since "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
His sensibility is typically youthful; plugging into the graphic power and visual energy of this classic cartoon strip has re-energized him and given him permission to be goofy. Adapting the perennially popular Belgian comic books has liberated Spielberg's boundless imagination. Through computer-generated imagery he can stage stunts that could never be filmed live, realizing a brand of supercharged slapstick that's both uproarious and near mythic. We can see the movies that unreel inside his head, and they'll be echoing inside our skulls for years.
The story is a rollicking mystery-adventure that sweeps intrepid boy reporter Tintin into the search for a pirate treasure. When the lad buys a replica of the 17th-century buccaneer ship the Unicorn, a silky, menacing model collector named Sakharine tries to acquire it for himself.
In short order there's a burglary of Tintin's apartment and a dead man on the doorstep ("Not again," fusses his landlady). With the help of his clever canine sidekick Snowy, Tintin follows clues that take him to the spooky mansion Marlinspike Hall, onto a shabby ocean freighter overrun with thugs, and to a glittering Moroccan palace. With the sinister Sakharine and his henchmen on Tintin's heels, our hero braves gun battles, plane crashes, tank chases, burst dams and a painful recital by an operatic soprano.
The film's photorealistic visual detail is awe-inspiring. Spielberg puts camera motion into almost every frame. To avoid the sterile, over-controlled look that wrecked such early computer-generated films as "The Polar Express," he even adds lens flares here and there for a sense of spontaneity.
Tintin fans will find subtle references to his many globe-trotting adventures hidden in scene after scene. When Captain Haddock, stranded with Tintin in the Sahara, begins to hallucinate towering waves and a pirate ship under siege, the transition is a great moment of pop fantasy. Spielberg has such intuitive rapport with the child in the adult viewer that the image sweeps you along into the next five minutes of swashbuckling fantasy. And there's always time for a throwaway joke: Look for the scene where Tintin swims underwater, his upswept forelock cresting the waves like the "Jaws" shark's fin.
The motion-capture performances are state-of-the-art, and then some. Andy Serkis, who has been Gollum, King Kong and the lead simian in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," is in fine form as Haddock, a volatile boozer with mood swings measurable on the Richter scale. As the hissable Sakharine, Daniel Craig injects evil implications into every glance and syllable. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg bumble entertainingly as Interpol's twin inspectors, Thomson and Thompson.
Jamie Bell has a challenge as the title character, a not-quite-child, not-exactly-teenager whose bravery and pluck are rather vanilla. He's mostly called upon to achieve miraculous escapes, and he carries our hearts with him in every death-defying leap. Appropriately for a movie about locating a lost treasure, the real thrill here is witnessing Spielberg rediscover his magic.