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Tintin: Red Rackham’s Treasure (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

I have to admit to being just a little bit lukewarm to The Secret of the Unicorn as an entry in The Adventures of Tintin. However, the second part in the adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is a much stronger instalment, standing on its own two feet. Part of me has always liked the more exotic Tintin adventures, but I reckon a large part of the appeal of this instalment is seeing Hergé resurrect a genre that has been left fallow for quite a few decades: the good old-fashioned treasure hunt.

Are Tintin and Haddock LOST?

“You can take it from me,” an old shopkeeper assures Tintin and Haddock, “I’m telling you the truth: there’s no such thing as buried treasure nowadays…” I suppose he’s probably right. The idea of stumbling across a hoard of gold and silver hidden by an old pirate on the sands of some forgotten desert island paradise is one mostly confined to nostalgia. Even as Hergé wrote the story back in the forties, the world was getting smaller, with every inch of the planet seemingly mapped and indexed. If there ever was buried treasure, the odds were that it had either been found already, or would instead spend the rest of eternity buried in the sand.

Hergé’s story is strongest when written as something of an affectionate homage to tales like Treasure Island, with mysterious islands, talking parrots, and forgotten idols to people long gone from the face of the planet. In a world where it seems every frontier has been charted and mapped, it’s actually surprisingly sweet to hear Haddock suggest that some mystical islands might have slipped through the cracks. when Haddock plots a course based on his ancestor’s coordinates, Tintin asks, “Isn’t the island on any charts?” Haddock responds with the slightly romantic idea that they could be stumbling across some long-forgotten paradise, “No, but that sometimes happens with small, unimportant islands.”

Not quite ship-shape...

It’s a wonderful fantasy, isn’t it? To find a small corner of the planet that has been ignored and abandoned, ready to be explored for the first time in centuries? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t dare trade google maps for the world (not with my sense of direction), but it’s a nice idea to idly speculate upon for a second or two, by and by. I loved that aspect of Tintin, as a kid, and I think I still respond to it as an adult. Hergé wrote the character as many things, even if his job remained that of a reporter – although I wonder if that is already falling a bit by the wayside, with Haddock making casual remarks like “they’re all alike, these journalists!” as if his best friend isn’t one of “these journalists.”

Tintin has been a lot of different things over the years. He’s been a defender of the realm (as in King Ottokar’s Sceptre), a detective (as in The Blue Lotus), and an explorer (as in The Shooting Star). I think I like the explorer facet of his character the best, seeing strange new cultures and greeting them with the open mind of Tintin in Tibet (as opposed to the colonial arrogance of Tintin in the Congo). I think Red Rackham’s Treasure demonstrates a genuine love for the idea of exploring, which Hergé would approach with the same passion in Destination: Moon and Explorers on the Moon.

Island of adventure...

There’s no real antagonist in this particular story, it’s really just more of a sequence of interesting things that happen as Tintin and his friends, including Captain Haddock, Thomson and Thompson, and – now – Cuthbert Calculus, attempt to hunt down a long-lost treasure connected to a long-dead pirate. There’s no rival expedition, and other potential claimants to the treasure are treated as a joke by Hergé rather than as serious competition for the prize. The treasure is theirs to find, if they are smart and resourceful enough to find it. It all adds up to give the story a relatively pleasant feel, which perhaps is what Hergé intended – the story was originally published during the Second World War.

More than that, though, the story really feels like everything has come together. The adventure features the last major addition to Tintin’s supporting cast, that of Cuthbert Calculus. The band is truly together now, and it feels strangely as if everything is in position. These core characters would serve to drive on the stories that Hergé would tell from now until the end of the series, and it’s fitting that we reach the half-way point with the introduction of the final major character. Sure, the roles of certain characters (like Bianca Castafiore) would expand and develop over the course of the series, but all the guests have finally arrived to the party.

Swimming with sharks...

Similarly, the story offers a rather dramatic shift in the status quo for Tintin and Captain Haddock, and really illustrates that both men are now men of leisure. Neither need ever worry about their jobs and wages again, not that Hergé was ever particularly concerned. The pair are literally free and able to do just about anything that the plot may require of them, and it’s a nice little shift that sort of acknowledges that Tintin hasn’t really been a reporter for quite some time. I’m not going to suggest that any of these points were problems for earlier stories, or that those stories “felt wrong”, but things genuinely feel right about how this adventure plays out.

Red Rackham’s Treasure is a fun little story, an affectionate homage to those old globe-trotting adventure stories that we all remember hearing so long ago. It’s easy to see why Spielberg may have been drawn to this particular story for his adaptation, especially if he sees young Tintin as a counterpart to Indiana Jones. I wouldn’t rank it as the very best Tintin story, but it’s certainly a lot of fun.

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