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The Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island (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.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for The Black Island. There are probably multiple reasons for this. Snowy is my favourite member of the Tintin ensemble, and The Black Island is as close as possible to a Snowy-centric adventure. I also tend to enjoy the pulpier stories in Hergé’s series, the ones that have aged so well that they perfectly evoke the serialised fiction of the era without feeling trapped in it – stories like The Cigars of the Pharaoh, which is in series competition to be my favourite Tintin adventure. The Black Island is undoubtedly a product of the thirties, with the German counterfeiting ring in England and the homage to King Kong, but it never feels that old. In a way, the bright colours and wonderful depiction of rural England (and other stereotypical elements like the police constables) always made me think of the British pop culture of the sixties. I think that’s the appeal of the adventure to me, in a nutshell.

And most of it made it to this animated adaptation.

Something to think about...

I think that The Black Island is one of those adventures that lends itself to this sort of adaptation. So far, the animation team have proved quite deft at adapting some of the more straightforward adventure stories (Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus), and taking a hacksaw to those in dire need of some streamlining (Tintin in America). The team struggled a bit with the one truly unconventional story this early in Hergé’s saga, as they reduced quite a bit of the complexity of the political satire in The Broken Ear to transform it into a more conventional little adventure for the boy reporter.

The Black Islanddoesn’t need any streamlining. It has a compelling mystery, some ominous bad guys, some great locations and even a monster. All of these elements fit the pulpy tone the animated adventures have managed so well, and none of them need to be toned down or simplified for the younger viewing audience. Even the political content of Hergé’s original story (where the counterfeiters are probably Nazi agents trying to destabilize the British currency) is so understated that it slips in under the radar. The subtext that roots the adventure firmly in the thirties is there for those looking out for it, but it won’t get in the way for those just wanting a diverting little adventure.

All tied up...

Speaking of “looking out for” things, I actually spotted Hergé for the first time here. I know he’s been present in a few of the earlier adventures I’ve reviewed, but this was the first time I noticed him without any help. Apparently the creator of the comic strip was drawn into most of these animated adaptations of his work for a cameo – similar to the one that opens The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

I have to admit that I’ve always liked the way that the author was so intimately associated with his work (often becoming part of it), given how deeply personal some of the later adventures became. Some of the later stories in the series were used by Hergé as a means of addressing any number of personal dilemmas, and it almost seemed like you could trace an outline of the author in those stories. There were many ways the author leaked through the inks on to the page, from working through an extra-marital affair while writing Tintin in Tibet to the interesting defense against allegations of collaboration in stories like The Calculus Affair and The Red Sea Sharks.  I’d even argue that this intense personalisation of the adventures explains why the more complex and flawed Captain Haddock arguably became the true “hero” of the later adventures.

Strangers on a train...

Still, back to the story at hand. The animated adaptation of The Black Island captures a lot of what’s so appealing about the source material, but I think it does have one major weakness. Quite simply, these animated adaptations are able to emulate the style of Hergé’s work, but they lack the skill. I’d make the argument that The Black Island is one of the best-illustrated adventures, if only for the way that Hergé manages to make the British countryside look so exciting. I grew up in Ireland. England is right next to us, and its landscape isn’t really that different from our own geography.

When the main appeal of Tintin was visiting exotic locales like South America or Asia, it tooks some genuine skill to make dreary old England seem like one of the most wonderful places that Tintin ever visited. And I think Hergé did that – he gives the country a rather wonderful sense of character. Unfortunately, the animated adaptation can’t quite do that, if only because it has to throw together so many frames to make a single episode. I accept that, and this is the first time I’ve really felt that something might have got lost in translation.

It's all up in the air...

Still, that minor complaint aside, The Black Island still makes for a wonderful little animated adventure.

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