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The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in the United States later this month, I’ll be taking a look at some of nineties animated television show. Check back daily!

Note: This is our review of the animated episode, check out our review of the book here.

When I was younger, I used to love The Adventures of Tintin because they’d transport me to far away places, and give me a chance to see environments and cultures that I wouldn’t get to see until I was much older, if ever. As such, the period of Hergé’s writing that appealed to me the most as a younger was the fantastical segment that covered the author’s work during an immediately after the Second World War. I wasn’t old enough to appreciated the political commentary and satire of stories like The Broken Ear or King Ottokar’s Sceptre, and I was mature enough to fully enjoy the reflective nature of the stories from The Calculus Affaironwards.

A little tied up...

Instead, I was swept up in treasure hunts at the bottom of the ocean (Red Rackham’s Treasure), occult mysteries (The Seven Crystal Balls), trips to outer space (Explorers on the Moon) and even discoveries of ancient lost civilisations in South America. There was a wonderful sense of whimsy and escapism to these outlandish and fantastic adventures, and I responded to that as a youngster. Even when I return to them today, I still feel as nostalgic. I think Prisoners of the Sun exemplifies that era of Hergé’s adventures so perfectly.

In fairness, returning as an adult, I do feel a little uncertain about Hergé’s portrayal of Incan culture. He famously seemed to miss the culture’s deep and complex understanding of astronomy, allowing Tintin to escape a death sentence through some fairly contrived circumstances – perhaps seeking a way to resolve the book’s central conflict in the least violent manner possible. However, despite Hergé’s completely justifiable sympathies for a civilisation wiped off the face of the planet by European imperialism, his portrayal of his modern-day “secret” Inca cult is very awkward.

They fill the same plot function as the drug smugglers used to in stories like The Crab With the Golden Claws or Cigars of the Pharaoh. They are a nebulous evil organisation who seek to thwart Tintin’s quest. They murder and kill, but they also push men to the brink of insanity. Anyone could be a member of this covert secret society, and those who aren’t are merely open to coercion. We don’t overhear what the Incas whisper to the conductor, but one assumes it was a grave threat. In short, they act like bad guys.

However, Hergé anchors them to a lost civilisation wiped out by the Spanish, and so attempts to generate sympathy for them. They are the victims of a cultural extermination, so their own heightened paranoia and fear may be justified, he seems to suggest.  Tintin seems to feel some measure of guilt about the way their ancestors were treated, and so agrees to leave their community in peace and tranquility, vowing never to tell anybody else about the secret. This would be understandable if the Incan policies weren’t incredibly aggressive, and they weren’t a society practicing human sacrifice.

Sure, the victims of their punishment are all transgressors who defile ancient burial grounds, but no attempt was made to explain or negotiate with them. Certainly, the member of the expedition don’t seem like bad people, and Cuthbert’s mistake (wearing the bracelet) was one of ignorance rather than malice. To burn him alive for such an action seems a tad extreme, and one wonders how many more explorers have met similar fates for violating similar laws they were unaware of. It always struck me that Hergé was arguing for an extreme form of cultural relativism, but Tintin’s willingness to play into this farce and his passive condoning of this culture of violence and sacrifice both compromise him as a character, but I doubt it was Hergé’s intent, as it would be in Tintin and the Picaros.

The moral seems to be that it’s fine because Calculus, the named character, is safe at the end. It doesn’t matter that he was almost killed by a fundamentally flawed system that remains in place at the end of the story. The Incas still exist, after all, and surely that’s cause to celebrate! I can understand Hergé’s desire to refute colonialism, especially given some of his earlier stories, but it just doesn’t work in this particular context.

Anyway, my misgivings about the ending aside, it’s a nice little adventure. I’m a sucker for these pulpy journeys into the unknown, and I have a fondness for the fantastical atmosphere of this story and its predecessor. After all, Hergé doesn’t necessarily explain everything, creating a refreshingly mystical slant to things. While the curse in Cigars of the Pharoah was purely fueled by the drug-smuggling operation, there’s any number of elements here that can’t be explained quite so easily – even if not to the absurd levels we’ll see in Flight 714.

I love these sorts of wonderful variations between Hergé’s story, where the author can be incredibly skeptical at one point, and yet willing to embrace the unknown at another. I think it speaks to the series’ appeal that it never feels bogged down in a particular world view, instead offering something that could hopefully appeal to everyone, even if it’s not the same thing. The animated episodes capture it quite well, and watching them in rapid succession continues to demonstrate just how many genres and styles of stories Hergé told within his relatively simple framework.

The animation really is superb, perfectly capturing the spirit of Hergé’s illustrations, even if they can’t match the detail. I should note, though, that I did catch one fairly significant problem. At the climax, as all three characters are about to be burned alive, the long shots only feature Haddock and Tintin, while the close-ups also include Calculus. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s very disconcerting. It’s a shame, because the animation team do a superb job with the hallucination and dream sequences. Of course, we’ve already seen some in Cigars of the Pharaoh, but they are just as good here.

I think Hergé might have been in the middle of one of his most enjoyable and accessible periods writing the book. Indeed, if a new reader asks for recommendations of where to start, I think following from The Secret of the Unicorn through to Explorers on the Moon is not a bad idea. It’s a nice little story, and it makes for a nice little episode.

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