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Non-Review Review: The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn

It’s Indiana Jones, but for kids! It’s fascinating that the collaboration of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson should produce something that feels much more like the earlier Indiana Jones films than Spielberg’s most recent collaboration with George Lucas. Adapting Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin was always going to be a challenging proposition, and it’s to the credit of everybody involved that it turned out so well. While it’s not quite perfect, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is undoubtedly Spielberg’s most entertaining family film since Jurassic Park.

Franchise launcher?

The animation is superb. I can understand that some people are distinctly uneasy at the idea of adapting Tintin into CGI, favouring either a conventionally animated cartoon or even a live-action take on the character. I can understand these views, and I felt the same way, to be entirely honest. Thankfully, Spielberg’s incredibly confident direction illustrates perfectly why he opted for this style, rather than a more conventional approach, all without ever feeling forced.

The use of CGI allows for two stand-out sequences. The first is a flashback, which will be familiar to anybody who has read The Secret of the Unicorn. While I consider the book to be overrated by fans of the series, I’d argue that the flashback sequence, as Haddock recounts his ancestor’s battle with a bunch of pirates, is among the very best in the entire series. While the script changes the location of Haddock’s narration, Spielberg is able to brilliantly transition between Haddock’s energetic telling of the tale, and the impressively-staged battle itself. I’d argue that scene is worth the price of admission alone, and it’s one of those sequences I can’t imagine any director pulling off in live-action.

Spare the cane, spoil the boy reporter...

The other fantastic use of CGI is for a rather long one-take chase through the heart of the fictional Moroccan port of Bagghar. It’s the type of set-piece it would be impossible to execute using real actors and sets. However, Spielberg treats the scene as if he were filming a real-life chase sequence, with deft camera manuevers and well-chosen angles. It genuinely works, and Spielberg seems almost enthused by the boundless possibilities with CGI, attacking the action sequences with more vigour and energy than he has in well over a decade.

The technical quality of the animation is superb. Wisely opting for a stylised look, rather than hyper-realism, the movie manages to avoid falling too far into the realm of the “uncanny valley.” It’s the best use of CGI since Avatar, which is definitely something. You can see the individual fibers on Haddock’s jacket. I would make the case the Tintin himself is the character who suffers most in transition, with some strange wrinkling around his eyes, but the rest of the cast looks superb. In particular, Haddock’s First Mate Allan looks like a Hergé sketch brought to life.

Bowled over?

Tintin is a very European comic book character, and one who has never really caught on in the United States, except as something of a minor curiosity. So, it’s unsurprising that the script (written by British writers Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright) has to make some slight alterations to the tone and mood of the tale. Of course, Hergé himself conceded the point, even while selecting Spielberg as his ideal director. On bestowing his blessing upon the American filmmaker, Hergé commented to his wife, “This Tintin will doubtless be different, but it will be a good Tintin.” Given how many different Tintins we saw under Hergé’s own pen, it’s a fair comment rather than an implicit criticism.

From the outset, Spielberg’s Tintin is a far more family-friendly affair, with necessary adjustments made to account for the fact that this is a family blockbuster. Some of the rougher edges from the three stories adapted – The Crab With the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure– have been smoothed out, allowing for a more conventional blockbuster. That isn’t to suggest it’s a bad decision, it’s just something that is quite striking on viewing the film, as there are some touches that feel quite distinct from those that Hergé brought to his stories.

That's all he can sand, until he can't sand no more...

Captain Haddock seems to have been smoothed out. He’s still a drunkard and a coward and a failure, but the version we see here never seems quite as pathetic as the one we were introduced to in The Crab With the Golden Claws. Perhaps afraid of giving younger viewers nightmares, the film avoids the temptation to render Haddock’s disturbing fantasies about murdering Tintin (convinced the reporter is a bottle of booze) in glorious 3D CGI. Similarly, while Haddock retains his temper and instability, he also never suggests murdering any of the mooks ordered to assassinate himself or Tintin.  It seems like the script started with the softer and gentler take on the character from later adventures, by-passing some of the more fascinating aspects of his introduction.

Similarly, Mister Sakharine gets something of an upgrade, evolving from a vaguely creepy antiques dealer to an international super-criminal, more like Tintin’s long-term foe Rastapopoulos, to the point where he conspires with Haddock’s evil First Mate, Allan, a regular side-kick of the villain. It isn’t enough for Sakharine to be a murderer and a fiend, he’s also apparently wanted the world over. Suddenly, the whistler-blower in the original story is transformed into an FBI agent, to give a sense of scale to the threat (and also, possibly, to provide an American angle). It’s easy to dismiss this change as an attempt to conform to the template of the big-budget blockbuster, but the update might actually be inspired by the animated “Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin”, which introduced villains into the previously villain-free Red Rackham’s Treasure.

Tintin makes the news...

There’s also the fact that there’s little time for the joy of exploration in the treasure hunt, with the script borrowing the ending of Red Rackham’s Treasure, rather than some of the more enjoyable deep-sea adventures. Long-term Tintin enthusiasts might be heart-broken to discover that Professor Calculus does not make an appearance, but I can understand the need to condense the source material. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of cuts need to be made. That said, I find it fascinating that Spielberg chose one of the less globe-trotting adventures as the basis of his film, as The Secret of the Unicorn is one of the few stories where Tintin doesn’t actually go anywhere.

Still, these are relatively minor changes, and provide minimal disruption to Hergé’s world. Indeed, they allow the story to move more fluidly than a more faithful adaptation might. If there is one weakness to Spielberg’s film, it’s the fact that the plot is so thinly-constructed that it risks falling apart if you stare at it for too long. Mixing and matching elements from a trio of well-loved stories (and throwing in countless references to others) doesn’t necessarily make for a sturdy central plot.

Having a blast...

Thankfully, Spielberg is able to account for the weaknesses in the script, and keeps the story moving from one gigantic set piece to the next. It’s no exaggeration to state that The Adventures of Tintin features two of the best action scenes I have seen all year, in the two aforementioned sequences, but there’s a lot to love. Spielberg doesn’t allow his audience to catch their breath between his set pieces, which really helps the story hold together.

More than that, though, it seems like Spielberg is having more fun than he has allowed himself to have in years. On top of references to other stories, we get a slew of Spielberg in-jokes. Swimming underwater, Tintin’s iconic quif looks more than a bit like the fin from Jaws. There’s a sequence with Haddock and Tintin in a motorbike and sidecar that seems like an affectionate reference to some interactions between Indy and his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Haddock will enver desert his friend...

Indeed, Tintin himself makes for something of a strange Spielberg hero, if you accept the argument that he is the centre of this particular film. Spielberg has a tendency to featured damaged or broken families at the centre of his narratives, so there’s something heart-warming about a character who has no family to speak of, but is not defined by it. Tintin is a teenager, but he lives by himself, making no reference to friends or family, save his little white dog, Snowy. However, he’s not searching for them or trying to protect them. Even the developing dynamic between Haddock and Tintin is not really a father-son relationship at all. It’s just fascinating to see a central Spielberg character who isn’t defined by an absent paternal influence.

Of course, you could argue that Haddock himself fills that particular void, brilliantly brought to life by Andy Serkis. Tintin is a character who is defined by his vagueness and almost absence, what Philip Pullman described as his “blandness, his blankness, his lack of depth; he is an empty page on which adventures can be drawn.”Tintin is a remarkably bland lead character, even in a genre that isn’t renowned for giving us the deepest characterisation. I like that about him, but I wonder if general audiences might have a bit of difficulty with just how generic Tintin is.

For a guy named Sakharine, he's not very sweet...

In many ways, Haddock feels like the focal point of the plot, which is based around Haddock’s own ancestry, which is grand – because Haddock is a more interesting character. If you believe that Haddock is the movie’s de facto central character, we get to see the familiar Spielberg paternal themes playing out in the conflict between Haddock and Sakharine, as both work through their “great-grand-daddy issues.” With (quite possibly) the largest sword-fight you’ve ever seen.

The movie, at its best, evokes Spielberg’s work on Indiana Jones. In particular, the score from John Williams seems to cater to that nostalgia, as does the way that Spielberg deals with the trappings of period – never focusing on them, but acknowledging them none-the-less. The use of CGI also allows for some superb slapstick, of which Hergé would undoubtedly be very proud. Some of it is lifted from the books, while some come from the imagination of Spielberg or his writers. However, a lot of it works very well, allowing this film to feel like more of a faithful successor to The Raiders of the Lost Ark than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ever did.

It's a dog's life...

I must also take a moment to acknowledge the superb title sequence, which is animated in a far more conventional style, and which Williams scores with a wonderful jazzy European soundtrack. It’s an absolutely breathtaking sequence, and another that stands out from a quite impressive film. It features any number of homages to classic adventures, from familiar-looking islands to rockets to outer-space. The only disappointing thing about all these sly continuity references is the fact that they mean I’ll likely never get to see a big-screen version of The Cigars of the Pharaoh, that adventure apparently taking place before this one. Though it does suggest we won’t see a Spielberg-helmed Tintin in the Congo anytime soon, so there is that.

It’s funny how well the individual sequences seem to work, and how many stunning scenes Spielberg is able to craft, while the flaws seem to lie in trying to tie them all together. Still, this is a bold and exciting take on the lead character, which is distinctive and affectionate, while also tailoring him for a new generation – without ever going too far. This is the same Tintin that we’ve always known, but with a few of the trappings changed. In doing so, Spielberg and Jackson successfully introduce Tintin to a whole new generation.

7 Responses

  1. Not the masterpiece a lot of people are claiming it is, but still a good solid action-packed ride for the family

    Here’s my review http://wp.me/p19wJ2-ro

    • I enjoyed it, to be fair. Didn’t love it, don’t think it’ll make my annual “top ten”, but the most purely fun Spielberg film in years.

  2. I’m going to avoid reading everything after the first paragraph until I’ve seen the movie myself.

    Which will be in two bloody months.

  3. Here in the United States, we have to wait until Christmas to see it (a strange reversal from the way films are usually opened). I am really looking forward to this. I love how Spielberg is reinventing himself yet again as a director of animation, while giving us another movie in a genre that he does so well.

    • Yep, it’s just good fun. I love that he has two Christmas films, in two different styles, but both very clearly playing to his strengths.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of raves about this and am genuinely glad. Spielberg has been a little “off” as of late and this sounds like a thriving return to form.

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