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The Adventures of Tintin: King Ottokar’s Sceptre (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.

In a way, King Ottokar’s Sceptre feels like the end of an era. King Ottokar’s Sceptre is the last adventure in the series that Tintin would spend alone (save for the company of the loyal companion, Snowy). Although Hergé began work on The Land of Black Gold next, the next completed story (The Crab With the Golden Claws) would introduce Captain Haddock, who would follow Tintin for the rest of the series.  It was also the last story that Hergé completed before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the sense of paranoia is palpable. After this story, Hergé would remove a lot of the more overt political commentary from the series, preferring to offer more subtle and biting commentary. I’m delighted to say that the animated adaptation retain pretty much all of the spirit of Heré’s original story, which I was a little worried about given how deeply rooted the story is in the European politics of the thirties.

Keys to the kingdom...

After all, like The Black Island, the villains here are Nazis, even if they are never named as such. In some ways, it seems even more obvious in this version of the story, with the strange “y”-shaped logo on the foreign plane Tintin hijacks calling to mind the swastika. This is a story about a foreign power meddling in the internal affairs of “a state in the Balkan penninsula”, attempting to destabilise the legitimate government as a prelude to what looks like an invasion. Indeed, the forces already amassing along the border call to mind the swift German invasion of any number of smaller states, the infamous blitzkreig tactic that allowed Hitler to secure entire countries before the international community could react.

Of course, none of this is overt – which is why I think that the episode doesn’t feel the need to amend or update any of it. Perhaps due to the way that Hergé was constantly revising and re-drawing and updating his stories, so that his adventures from the thirties were often revised and touched up decades later, I think Tintin has a strange timelessness about him, so that adventures like this clearly take place in a past, but not in a specific time or place. Even though the kind of absolute monarchy Syldavia seems to enjoy is quite rare in Europe today, it doesn’t feel that dated to have Tintin run around trying to save a monarchy.

A new case for the boy reporter...

In fact, the only update I recognised as an attempt to modernise the episode was a surprisingly subtle one. “The police warned me there was a  madman loose!” the king’s aide declares, as he bundles Tintin away. In the original story, Hergé included a reference to the anarchists, a political movement in the early part of the nineteenth century that was already losing steam by the late thirties. It’s a small change that is hardly noticeable to anyone, and I’d argue it actually works well in context, and adds to the timelessness of Hergé’s original tale.

In fact, it’s aspects of the episode itself that seem to evoke the thirties – a conscious homage that embraces this timelessness rather than trying to modernise it. It has been argued that Hergé’s work on The Black Islandwas heavily inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. That’s certainly not an unfair point of comparison, and I think there are quite a few elements of that affection to be seen here as well. After all, there is definitely a vibe of pulpy mystery and suspense thriller from these early stories, so why not reference the master?

Listening in on The Lives of Others...

King Ottokar’s Sceptre perhaps feels like the most tense and paranoid of Hergé’s early story, as it seems like everyone is in on the plan to overthrow the monarchy. “You’re part of the conspiracy!” Tintin exclaims when it’s revealed his escort has orders to kill him. The Professor is replaced by his evil twin, who Tintin susses out through a series of tiny clues. There’s even a locked room mystery at the core of the story, as Tintin tries to figure out how the eponymous relic got out of the chamber.

The production team seem to recognise the story’s roots in those sorts of thrillers, and even adopt a few stylistic touches as a tip of the metaphorical hat to those classic Hollywood films. On the phone conversations taking place throughout the episode, for example, the team opts for a gentle wipe effect, as if fading over half the screen. This is in place of more modern techniques like a split screen or cutting back or forth. It really gives the adaptation a nice sense of affection for the material.

It's a wipeout!

I do have to confess, though, that watching all these early adventures back to back has made me notice how often the stories fall back on familiar plot devices. Perhaps I didn’t notice them because I read the books spaced further apart, or perhaps the animated episodes use the elements slightly more often than Hergé himself, but I’m actually growing quite tired of Tintin tricking bad guys into dropping their guns and then pointing their guns at them. The same with car chases, which were generally over quite quickly in the books, but seem slightly extended here in order to provide more “action.” Still, these are minor complaints, and perhaps suggest that I’m ready to move on to the next phase in Tintin’s adventures.

I’m surprised at how faithful King Ottokar’s Sceptre was to the source material, and I’m honestly quite glad. It’s one of those stories that is entertaining when read as a child, but offers a great deal of subtext when you return as an adult. Well done to the team for putting it together.

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