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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (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 and our review of the film here.

I have to admit that I was never a big fan of The Secret of the Unicorn. I know it’s strange, given how much praise and respect the film gets in various critical circles, and near universally high esteem that fans of the series seem hold for the adventure. I don’t hate it, and I don’t dislike it. I am just not especially fond of it, especially compared to some of the adventures around it. While the animated adaptation does make the case for The Secret of the Unicornas a solid Tintin adventure, I do have to be a bit disappointed with the transfer quality on the blu ray disc.

If it ain't broke...

It’s a shame, because the quality of the collection so far has been superb. However, my software won’t allow me to capture the quality of the image, so I’ve been forced to use substandard images I’ve cobbled together from all over the internet. Still, in general, the remastering on the set is superb, and the DVD gets a solid recommendation from a technical standpoint. It looks really good for a show animated in the late eighties and early nineties. However, the actual transfer for this two-part adventure is a bit of a letdown.

I don’t why. As I mentioned, this is the first time I’ve seen a problem like this in all the episodes that I have watched so for. I wonder if it’s because this was only the second adventure produced for the television show, and perhaps the animation team was trying to find its feet or it wasn’t stored properly. The second part of the adventure does look considerably better, with the grain cleared up, so it’s possible that the material simply wasn’t maintained properly – although there is a sequence or two in the second half where things look a bit fuzzier and speckled with dirt. Maybe it was farmed out to another studio, like American cartoons tend to be? I don’t know.

Those antique dealers give Tintin a run for his money...

Aside from that, it’s a nice little adventure. The Secret of the Unicorn is one of only two adventures where our eponymous hero never leaves Belgium – although I did find it interesting that the episode went to the bother of specifying that he paid “twenty dollars” for the model ship. I know the dub is intended for American audiences, but I thought it might have made more sense to leave the unit of currency ambiguous. After all, even younger children will recognise the architecture and setting is not American, never mind the fact that the title of Tintin in America would imply that the reporter was visiting (rather than living in) the States. Indeed, the adaptation of The Crab With the Golden Claws even sees Tintin respond to “where did you come from?” with “from Belgium originally!” It’s a minor detail, but one I found just a little bit amusing.

Watching it again, I can see the appeal of the story. It does feature an ancient conspiracy, a grand bit of history, a riddle and a mystery, and various shady goings-on. I appreciate these aspects of the story. In fact, I adore Hergé’s rather wonderful flashback sequence as Haddock narrates his ancestor’s story. I think that Hergé’s storytelling in that sequence was superb, and I think Spielberg managed to perfectly emulate it in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicornwith some of the most wonderful scene transitions I have ever seen. While the animated episode does a decent job, it never captures the magic of either.

Thompson should stumble across a clue eventually...

However, my problem with the story remains. The whole thing seems lack a proper set-up and resolution. It’s a story framed as a mystery, but there’s no real way to figure out what is going on until Hergé explains it to us. The Bird Brothers, for example, are not introduced until the final act, and the conspiracy itself seems rather trite for all the drama around it: some geek out antiques dealers want to kill Tintin. It seems almost banal for the reporter who has toppled drug cartels and plots to overthrow governments. It just seems… rather anticlimactic.

While The Seven Crystal Balls reads as an adventure in its own right rather than merely a prelude to Prisoners of the Sun, and Destination: Moon is entertaining enough without simply setting up Explorers on the Moon, I can’t help but feel like The Secret of the Unicorn is nothing but lead-in to Red Rackham’s Treasure, a story that I enjoy far more. Perhaps it is, as I concede above, personal bias for the more exciting and adventurous stories around it, but it feels like The Secret of the Unicorn is somehow slight when measured against the adventures around it.

Tough sail?

The animated adventure does a nice enough job with the material, and offers a wonderfully faithful take on the source story. David Fox is really quite great as Haddock, particularly during the flashback sequence. Of course, Haddock is arguably just a fun character to play, but there’s a lot of energy in the performance – and it helps inject a bit of enthusiasm into the plot itself. I also admire a show that seems to be aimed at younger viewers for actually showing the death of the pirate Red Rackham, or at least explicitly acknowledging it. It seems like too many cartoons are afraid to involve death, which puts removes any suspense from the drama – as you know no one will die. I respect the show for being willing to kill characters, and conceding that they are dead (not merely wounded).

On the topic, and apropos of nothing, I did like the scene where the car screeches around the corner with the machine gun as Barnaby is about to confess. I love how Tintin’s immediate reaction is to push Haddock out of the way, seemingly indifferent to the fate of Barnaby himself, who is just left standing there like a deer in the headlights. Look at the way the scene was staged, it does kinda make Tintin look like a bit of a douche – particularly since he has to dive pastBarnaby to grab Haddock. I know Barnaby had to get shot, but it’s weird to see the scene staged in such a way.

Dogged determination...

Still, it’s not really a complaint. Outside of the picture quality of the episode, and my own issues with the source material, there’s relatively little to complain about in this animated adaptation of one of the best-loved Hergé stories. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to Red Rackham’s Treasure quite a bit.

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