Steven Spielberg hopes he’s the typical American when it comes to Tintin: the filmmaker had never heard of the guy, but once he got acquainted, they became friends for life.
Peter Jackson knows he’s the typical non-American when it comes to Tintin: he’s known him since before he could read, and the character’s globe-trotting adventures are part of his own storytelling DNA.
Together, the two Academy Award-winning filmmakers hope to achieve something that eluded Belgian artist and writer Herge with his Tintin books: a place for his hero in North America.
"The Adventures of Tintin," directed by Spielberg and produced by Jackson, already is a global blockbuster, approaching $250 million at the worldwide box office as it heads into US theaters Dec. 21, two months after it began rolling out to theaters overseas.
It’s a reverse of egocentric Hollywood’s old pattern, where a film such as Spielberg’s "Jaws" would run its course domestically and trickle out to the rest of the world months later. Today, most big franchise flicks open nearly everywhere around the same time, but "Tintin" was that rare one that needed the goodwill of huge foreign audiences to sell US crowds on a hero about whom, like Spielberg, most of them had never heard.
"This is an international title," Spielberg said in an interview alongside Jackson at last summer’s Comic-Con fan convention, where they showed off footage of "The Adventures of Tintin." ”It was written and embraced by children of all ages in 55 languages, all over the world except in North America, and that is what motivated us to debut and give a full two months of ‘Tintin’ to the world that created and embraced him."
So who’s Tintin? He’s an intrepid young reporter with an odd tuft of ginger hair who barrels and burrows into a story until he becomes the story, traveling the world in pursuit of crooks, treasure, mysteries and a grand good time.
Tintin’s accompanied by his resourceful dog Snowy, and in most of the comic-book tales of Herge, the pen name of Georges Remi, by boozy seaman Captain Haddock.
The stories span decades, from the character’s creation in the late 1920s until 1983, when Herge died leaving behind his unfinished 24th Tintin book.
"The Adventures of Tintin" combines elements from three books — "The Secret of the Unicorn," ”The Crab with the Golden Claws" and "Red Rackham’s Treasure." The story sends Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Haddock (Andy Serkis) on a race against villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) to find lost pirate booty.
The books have been a beloved part of the initiation into reading for millions of children, among them New Zealander Jackson, 49, who recalled poring over Herge’s colorful comic panels before he could understand the words.
"You grow up looking at Tintin — in my case, being an only child — he was like the brother that I wished I had," Jackson said. "The older brother that went on these adventures, dangerous adventures and exciting. And then as I grew older, Tintin stayed the same age, and I sort of became older than him. And you start to appreciate the satire and the world in which Herge lived in. The decades of incredible social upheaval in Europe.
"There are layers in there that I find so fascinating now as an adult. Plus, you see the influences Herge was under, not just in the place and time that he lived, but also Hollywood films. He clearly had a love of Hollywood adventure films, probably from those early ’30s and ’40s days, because a lot of that feeling is in Tintin. Plus a love of silent comedy. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, they’re all in there. … We’ve tried to sort of layer all of that into the film."
It was Spielberg’s tribute to those old Hollywood adventure films, 1981’s "Raiders of the Lost Ark," that introduced him to Tintin. French reviewers compared the travels and escapades of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones to those of Tintin, so the filmmaker felt he had to go check out this unfamiliar character.
Spielberg fell under his spell and bought the film rights to Tintin, who previously had been brought to life in some European movies and later a cartoon TV series. Then Spielberg spent two decades trying to figure out how to re-create Herge’s world on film.
He settled on a blend of digital animation and the motion-capture technology Jackson pioneered to create the sinister Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" films and the giant ape in "King Kong," both played by Serkis. Spielberg shot on a nearly bare soundstage in Los Angeles, his actors covered in reflective dots recorded by dozens of digital cameras.
Those performances essentially were the bones and subcutaneous tissue, which were then layered over by digital animators at Jackson’s WETA effects shop in New Zealand to create the finished characters inside the computer-generated world of exotic settings and trappings the filmmakers had dreamed up.
The work went on while Spielberg was directing his second release this December, the live-action World War I epic "War Horse," and Jackson was making "The Hobbit," his two-film prologue to "The Lord of the Rings."
Once "The Hobbit" is done, the plan is for Jackson to direct a second Tintin film. That’s assuming US audiences cooperate and crowd theaters the way overseas fans have for "The Adventures of Tintin."
While many studio films now make most of their money internationally, a Hollywood movie still needs to work at home to warrant a sequel.
The overseas business "The Adventures of Tintin" has done is a strong recommendation to US audiences that it’s a film worth seeing — even if they still don’t know who this Belgian hero with the funny name is.
"When it comes to global tastes, the world is shrinking," Spielberg said. "We’re all on the same page through Twitter and Facebook. Everybody tends to understand each other a lot better. It doesn’t stop wars from happening all over the world, but it certainly does bring a lot of people, and especially audiences, together. And they’re able to mix and match their tastes.
"It’s a very exciting time in the world of digital communication. I think in that sense, we can make movies for one world."