It's Tintin Time!

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Paramount

Boy wonder Tintin, voiced in the film by Jamie Bell, has been wildly popular since he debuted in a Belgian comic strip in 1929

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Hergé's faces got the same treatment. It's one of the oddities of Hergé's style that while his backgrounds are marvelously detailed — he often drew from reference photos — his faces stay soft and stylized. They're that way in the movie too, sort of, but they also have to have depth, and they have to act, which means more detail, to get rid of that Polar Express Silly Putty smoothness. The biggest challenge was Tintin himself, whose face on paper is as simple and elegant as a punctuation mark. "We probably spent two or three years working at every subtlety and nuance of Tintin's face," Jackson says. "Steven and I would have long video conferences with the design team where we would look at CGI heads rotating on turntables and say, Could his eyes be 15% smaller? Could his eyebrows be a little bit lower?"

Once the look was right, they had to find somebody to play Tintin — to give the performance that they would then digitally capture. Physical resemblance wasn't an issue, since we never see the actor's face, it was more the intangibles they were after — what Jackson calls "Tintinish qualities." They settled on Jamie Bell, the English actor already well known for playing Billy Elliot and who had worked with Jackson in King Kong. "Tintin required an earnestness," Spielberg says. "An excitement in his voice, a sense of discovery, a sense that he never gets tired of discovering new ways to solve a problem. Jamie was a sort of a well that did not need replenishing." Bell didn't even have to train his hair up into the quiff. Computers added that too.

For an old-school filmmaker like Spielberg, directing an all-digital movie came with a learning curve. "It was weird," he says. "I'm used to coming on a set and being inspired by the actual quality of the sky that day, the way the light is hitting the trees and the buildings." But there was no set for Tintin. "It was just like a big basketball court, a big white clinically, surgically antiseptic space." Spielberg worked with a digital model of the space, which he watched on a screen as he shot the actors. Weirdness aside, the process was faster than shooting live action: when you've built your entire universe from scratch on a computer, you don't have to wait around for lights or makeup or the weather. All told, the team spent five years prepping the film. The shooting took just 31 days.

Indy, Without the Hat
The result is a brightly colored, relentlessly paced adventure that both is, and isn't, the boy reporter of Brussels. It reminds one not a little of Indiana Jones — it has that same pulpy, retro, swashbuckling quality. The action sequences, liberated as they are from the laws of physics, and movie budgets, must be among the most elaborate ever devised — at one point Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock chase a falcon through a Moroccan hill town through which a rampaging flood is roaring, picking up and destroying and discarding vehicles as they go. Hergé's love of physical comedy is all there: he borrowed liberally from the movies, especially Charlie Chaplin, and Spielberg collects on the debt, retransplanting the gags back to their original medium.

The movie is densely packed with little Tintinacious touches for serious fans. Captain Haddock, as played by Andy Serkis (the performance-capture veteran who also played Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy), looks particularly authentic: they've nailed the wet black thatch of his hair and his tiny gin-blue eyes. (Though everyone has their own Captain Haddock in mind: mine didn't have a Scottish accent and would never make a slightly racy remark about bestiality, no matter how much he'd had to drink.) Spielberg has imported the Siamese cat from The Seven Crystal Balls, and there are at least two crabs with golden claws. (There's also, oddly, a line about the giant rat of Sumatra, which is a Sherlock Holmes reference, not a Tintin one.) Spielberg pulls off a brilliant gag wherein a swimming Tintin's red quiff substitutes for a shark's sinister dorsal fin — a nod to Spielberg's own Jaws.

It's a minor, but still choice, irony that all this high-powered technology is in the service of a movie set in an indeterminate but decidedly retro past, a dreamy world of vintage cars and rotary phones. It turns out that it takes the computing resources of a cutting-edge data center to bring to 3-D life the world Hergé created using only pen and paper. "That's probably the thing that impressed me the most about the books," Spielberg says, "that Hergé was a filmmaker in his own right."

He pays a deft homage to the master in the opening moments of The Adventures of Tintin. We first meet Tintin sitting for a portrait by a jovial sidewalk artist, who then holds up his work. The portrait is recognizably the iconic Tintin of the comics. The artist is recognizable too, at least to fans. It's Hergé.

This article originally appeared in the October 31, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.

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