Tintin may not be particularly well known in the United States, but he is something of a treasure for most people in Europe who ever enjoyed a childhood. The news that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were mounting a big-budget remake caused considerable consternation that everything special about the character would be drowned in Hollywood gloss. Hergé, the writer and artist of the original albums, had selected Spielberg as the man he believed could do justice to his creation, but that was back in the ’80s, when the director was fresh off the back of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It appeared a dark omen that the Spielberg who finally managed to get Tintin onto the silver screen was coming from the woeful Kingdoms Of The Crystal Skull.
Fortunately, Tintin fans can breathe a sigh of relief. Secret Of The Unicorn is far from a perfect film, but is the best one Spielberg has made in the better part of a decade. The director seems to have been reinvigorated by new possibilities in directing his first animated film and though the motion capture animation can’t match the warmth of Hergé’s drawings, the Tintin spirit is very much kept alive.
The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: Dec 21st 2011
Purists may wish to know that the film isn’t exactly faithful to its source material, in narrative terms at least. The first third of the film is lifted from the album which gives the film its name, the middle act moving into Crab With The Golden Claws as a means of explaining how Tintin came to meet his best friend, the sozzled sea-dog Captain Haddock, and the conclusion almost entirely made up, but for the final scene. Those discordant origins are tied together fairly well, although why Spielberg didn’t make Crab With The Golden Claws, which is probably the story he draws upon most heavily, is a little confusing, especially since the film’s ending is rendered somewhat incomplete due to the Unicorn album being the first of a two-parter. It is left neither completely open for a sequel – Red Rackham’s Treasure is not the most action-packed of adventures, so is unlikely to be the basis for Tintin’s second big screen outing – nor completely concluded. We are left assuming that Tintin and Haddock will complete the rest of the adventure on their own.
Up until that last stumble, though, Spielberg keeps the story ticking over at a nice pace and mercifully makes no attempt at modernising Hergé’s timeless world or adding sharper edges to its charming innocence. (A single joke about ‘animal husbandry’ breaks this rule and feels very out of place). Tintin is still entirely chaste – his landlady says he is strict about not receiving visitors after bedtime – and despite plenty the plethora of shooting and fistfights, there isn’t a drop of blood spilt and villains’ fates lie in gaol rather than death. References to previous adventures are fun, if perhaps a tad too blunt at times and may limit potential sequels given how it is suggested that several of Tintin’s adventures have already happened by the point we meet him.
While all good-spirited fun, the film certainly doesn’t shirk on the action. It is significantly more comedically inclined than Indiana Jones, but features some set-pieces that are as exciting and superbly shot as anything Spielberg has ever done before – and though I’m not a big fan of his generally, he fully deserves his reputation as one of the all-time great directors of action. The first of these set-pieces is a pirate sea-battle taking place in flashback and which puts everything in the creatively bankrupt Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise to shame. Every inch of the screen is packed with activity, from roaring cannon fire and crashing waves to the two captains fighting to the death as their ships burn and sink beneath their feet. Although it is obvious how much fun Spielberg is having – witness the fantastically inventive transitions between past and present – the master’s discipline is still very much in effect.
The second sequence is a show-stopping chase through a Middle Eastern town as it is engulfed in the flood of a collapsing dam. All captured in a single take and ridiculous in its scale, vibrancy and action, Spielberg keeps a flawless sense of geography even amidst the rapidly escalating havoc. There is never a second’s confusion as to where anyone is or how they get to the places they need to be. Even as an animated film, it is one of the most thrilling pieces of sustained action that Spielberg has put on screen in his entire career, even if it ends up putting a dampener on the needlessly extended ending which follows and cannot possibly compare.
Visually, the environments and animation are top notch, treading a balanced line between faithfulness to Hergé’s designs and a semi-realistic style. The characters take some time to get used to, with their eyes never conveying emotion to anywhere near the same extent as those old black dots, but are a decent fit for a film that treats adult action with a comic, youthful sensitivity. If anything, the ‘realistic’ characters are more immediately engaging than the stylised ones: some of the strangely shaped noses, in particular, can be jarring. As personalities, the characters stick to the templates laid out in the albums, which is fine for the main cast, but the underdeveloped nature of Hergé’s villains makes them a bland bunch, defined by nothing more than their cunning plans.
The voicework assigns its strengths and weaknesses in similar places: Jamie Bell is an ideal choice for Tintin, mixing young enthusiasm with gritty determination, while Andy Serkis is good fun as Haddock. Snowy doesn’t get any lines, thankfully, but is animated with enough expression to compensate. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are endearingly pompous as Thomson and Thompson, getting a number of good laughs despite their only real purpose being to satisfy fans and bring some slapstick absurdity to proceedings. Less positive is Daniel Craig, completely miscast as the villainous Sakharine. He isn’t helped by the character lacking any great personality, but his deep and distinctive voice sounds wrong coming from a man more waspishly devious than physically strong.
John Williams’ score, for once, also hits the wrong tone, going for comic jauntiness where more gravitas is needed. Tintin’s adventures are more comedic than grown-up equivalents, but they are exciting because they are delivered with a straight face. Williams’ opening theme (over a twee Catch Me If You Can-style credits sequence) is too bouncy and disposable, infinitely moreso when compared to the this magnificent track by Ray Parker, Jim Morgan and Tom Szczesniak, which most long time Tintin fans will associate with the character’s animated adventures in the early ’90s.
Regardless, The Secret Of The Unicorn is a significantly better film than many fans will have been expecting, staying just true enough to Hergé while adding a layer of superbly-staged bombast that suggests Spielberg may have reignited the old spark which Kingdoms Of The Crystal Skull seemed to find extinguished. It may not be up to the high standards of classic Indy or Star Wars, but as a family-friend slice of high adventure, it will be a great gateway for parent geeks to transition their short rounds and padawans (padawen?) into Harrison Ford’s capable company. Fingers crossed for Cigars Of The Pharaoh next!
Alex Katz: I never expected to be so completely enraptured by a performance capture film, but the initial uncanny valley-ness that I feared would bug me throughout the film was gone in an instant. The character design brilliantly harnesses the essence of each character, though still lacking the charm of the original Hergé work. There’s a lot of heart and a lot of old school, original Indiana Jones Spielberg on display here, a welcome sight from his other more maudlin picture for the holiday season. The major league action set piece, the aforementioned chase sequence amidst a collapsing dam, is well worth the price of admission in 3D alone, though the film putters along to an oddly-toned conclusion after the climax and the resolution of the plot. I’m eagerly waiting Peter Jackson’s companion film in a couple of years. 85 – Spectacular
Maxwell Roahrig: I’ve never been a fan of performance capture. Since I saw the first trailer for The Polar Express all those years ago, I wrote it off as a lazy way of doing animation. But The Adventures of Tintin has kind of sold me on the idea. It’s something that this movie has that other performance capture flicks don’t have: style. It’s like the first time you booted up Team Fortress 2 after playing nothing but Halo and Call of Duty for three years. Immediately, you fall in love with the character design, and the world crafted before your eyes. But it’s not just the performance capture that has me smitten on this movie. The score, the action, the characters, it’s all classic Spielberg. You know, that crazy kid that thought Raiders of the Lost Ark was a good idea. It should also say something that Tintin is the most Indiana Jones-like movie since The Last Crusade. My dream is that The Adventures of Tintin leads the way for more classic adventure movies to come out. God knows Indiana Jones isn’t doing that anymore. 80 – Great