Not since E.T., the Extraterrestrial has Steven Spielberg had this much fun.

The legendary filmmaker’s Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, an adrenaline-pumping, motion-capture animated adventure, has opened in movie theaters across the United States. Not only is Tintin packed with “100 miles an hour” action, said Spielberg, in a recent phone interview, but it’s rich with eccentric characters and a young lead character who – as in E.T. – rises up in the face of danger.

That’s why Spielberg, a father of six, loves the story so much. “I’ve always been drawn to the empowerment of young people,” the two-time Oscar-winning director said. “It’s so powerful when a young person suddenly has to take the circumstance he finds himself in into his own control … to achieve something kind of wonderful.”

The idea that the young can stand up against hardship was important to Spielberg in his own childhood and now, as a parent of teens and young adults ranging in age from 15 to 26. Though best known for films geared toward adults, Spielberg has directed several PG-13 rated movies with major kid appeal, including Jurassic Park and Disney’s new release, War Horse.

Tintin, however, is the first PG-rated movie targeted mainly at kids that Spielberg has directed since Hook in 1991 and his former favorite, E.T., in 1982. He discovered The Adventures of Tintin, a comic book series by the Belgian artist Hergé, in 1981.

He loved the art, the story and the tenacious lead character, Tintin. When he first approached Hergé about making it into a movie, Spielberg was unaware of the comic’s legions of followers in Europe and of the 150 million books that had been sold since Tintin debuted in 1929.

“If I had known this, I would have been a lot more intimidated on the telephone [with Hergé],” he said, chuckling.

Kid Power

In the film, Tintin buys a model ship, the Unicorn, at a market, only to discover that it harbors a great secret – and that a swarm of dangerous characters will stop at nothing to get it from him.

Through the character of Tintin, Spielberg sends a positive message about youth standing up against evil, a theme that has appeared before in Spielberg movies. It emerges in E.T., where an alienated boy rescues an alien, and it returns in War Horse, where an English farm boy searches through World War I battlefields to bring home his beloved horse.

Spielberg’s interest in youth empowerment stems from his own childhood. As a skinny kid with glasses, a dyslexic reader and a Jew in gentile neighborhoods, Spielberg was at times a target of bullies. He also had to move several times, including when his parents divorced. He ultimately joined his dad in the Bay Area, graduating from Saratoga High School in 1965.

A self-proclaimed “scaredy-cat” who was terrified even of Disney’s Fantasia as a kid, Spielberg said he didn’t want to make Tintin too scary for children.

There is an element of danger in the fi lm, however, so it’s best for ages 7 and up. As a parent, Spielberg said, he also was “responsible not to put any pott y humor in Tintin and yet, still keep it mature enough, so the kids will not feel that we’re talking down to them.”

Spielberg spent 28 years, off and on, on the project. Due to a change in script, production company and lead actor, movie production didn’t begin until the mid-2000s. He and his colleagues then spent five years developing the script and visual style, animating the film and adding effects.

Spielberg had more control over Tintin than any other film, doing more tasks than he usually does, even lighting his own sets.

“Because this is animation, I can do things over again to get them to meet my original vision,” he explained. “Not since E.T. have I enjoyed myself as much as making Tintin.”

Family First

Spielberg put his heart into the animated adventure, and he approaches his role as a father in the same way. When his first son, Max, was born in 1985, Spielberg said his “paradigm changed, and everything from that moment on had to do with my kids’ wellbeing, and my career suddenly became second.”

Now that his children are older, the key to parenting is being a good listener, he said. He tries to be mindful and empathetic, and if any one of his kids tells him, in so many words, that he’s spending too much time at the office, “I will always drop everything and go meet those needs. That’s the priority.”

“They always need mom and dad, and I am either there with my kids or my wife [Kate Capshaw] is, but  they’re never without us.”

Among the activities he and his kids enjoy doing together are caring for their 12 horses and watching movies. Spielberg’s kids have grown up with the work and energy surrounding the production of Tintin and he’s shared with them the film’s evolution. He recently was able to show them the final cut – “a wonderful reward,” he said, for the years that he’s devoted to it. ■

Angela Geiser is a freelance writer and a mother of two.