The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

Steven Spielberg has owned the rights to the Tintin books since 1983, when they were passed to him by Hergé‘s widow. Apparently, the Belgian author was an admirer of Spielberg’s work, and had indicated that he was the only director who could do the stories justice. Presumably, both Spielberg and Hergé saw common ground between Tintin and Indiana Jones but, if I may be allowed to presume a little further, neither of them can have expected that the finished film would take nearly three decades, and be a fully-CG 3D motion-capture extravaganza on a budget of $130 million. For comparison, Raiders of the Lost Ark had been finished for $18 million, and Hergé’s death coincided with the release of MS Dos 2.0. But while the new film appears on a wave of publicity about its state-of-the art technology, it is also resolutely old-fashioned.In case you need an introduction to Tintin (he is less well known in the US than in Western Europe, where he’s as recognisable as it’s possible for a fictional character to be), he’s a young reporter who invariably finds himself racing around the world on a trail of clues that will resolve a mystery, accompanied by his faithful dog, Snowy. As such, the plot of the film is resolutely linear, jumping from one link in the clue-chain to the next; there are some flashbacks, allowing some beautiful temporal transitions as the past seeps into the present (and vice versa), but the principle orientation of The Adventures of Tintin is forwards, and it’s fast: this is Spielberg’s paciest film since Temple of Doom, and even the most attention-deficient viewers might find themselves yearning for some breathers between chases, more time to spend getting to know the characters.

There’s something quaint about an intercontinental race for a pirate’s sunken treasure, and this may be part of the film’s efforts to preserve the spirit of the original books by not “modernising” (there are no electronics, no pop music, no girls) the franchise, but rather than transliterating the books, Spielberg has squeezed Tintin through the filter of his own sensibilities, as if it is about his enthusiasm for the stories rather than a re-presentation of Hergé’s work. There are visual references to earlier Spielbergs: at least three shark sightings, at least one of them a direct Jaws pastiche, a thunderous swashbuckling pirate sequence that makes amends for Hook (and sees a group of chained sailors drowned in a moment that recalls both Amistad and the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan), and more than one minor character bears a striking resemblance to the man himself:

These inscriptions of Spielbergian authorship (it will be interesting to see if Peter Jackson uses Tintin as a similar nostalgic scratching post when he eventually gets round to his sequel in a couple of years’ time) are discernible even before we factor in the Indiana Jones-style action sequences. The Jones movies were always characterised by meticulously-designed action set-pieces that took their fights and chases into the realms of slapstick, miniature highwire acts of time-pressures, precipes, and vehicular stunts, boasting world-class stuntwork by Vic Armstrong and his team. Because Tintin is entirely animated, there are no actual stunts, no actual danger, but the construction of the set-pieces is ramped up to an extraordinary degree of precision: in his transition from page to screen, Tintin has become quite the parkour specialist. The centrepiece is a climactic pursuit and tumble through the streets of a Moroccan port, all captured in a single snaking, swooping shot. It’s all dazzlingly staged and great fun, not to mention entirely impossible without animation technology, but the downside of this level of machine-tooled exactitude is that it weeds out all the chaos, clutter and human roughness of live action to keep everything as tightly controlled as comic book panels.

Given that the screenplay duties were handed to Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, three writers who have demonstrated real verve in replaying old characters and genres with affection and wit, it is surprising that they haven’t been allowed to take the characters far from their origins, even if it is cheering to see that Tintin has been given neither contemporary relevance nor revisionist overhaul. But one might have expected a little more deft dialogue than we get here. For example, the final showdown between two old foes is opened with the challenge “Who gave you permission to board my ship?” and the response “I don’t need it. I never did.” These sound like placeholder lines in an unfinished script, itching for somebody to drop in a barbed retort to sharpen the significance of the moment. Andy Serkis’s Captain Haddock has a nice line in maudlin self-pity and erratic, alcoholic mood-swings, at times tilting his portrayal beyond the comedy-drunk schtick into quite troubling self-destruction.

But Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s Thompson and Thomson are quite insufferable, their affable toff accents a replacement for real characterisation, and many of the bit-part voice actors seem to have the same my-accent-is-my-character problem – there appears to be some disagreement over how cartoonish the performances should be, and this is expressed in the animation, which has Hergé’s caricatural elongated heads and massive noses (Tintin himself gets away with looking like Tilda Swinton playing a young Jude Law), but all of the surface detail of human actors: Hergé never had to draw stubble and liver spots on his figures to make them seem alive, and this quandary continues to tug the development of computer animation in competing directions. Andy Serkis has become the public face of motion-capture technology, and is perhaps the most practised at it by now thanks to his turns in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, but perhaps it is his pasty, pudgy affability (offscreen and sometimes on it), that make him a good advert for what is often lambasted as a creepy, uncanny and alienating technique. He has somehow figured out how to inject some his own vital warmth into his pixelated avatars.I don’t want this to sound too negative. Tintin is a lot of fun, and flies by in a whizz of unreconstructed, boys-own bluster and Snowy, with his fine balance of canine habits and anthropomorphic smarts, is a real scene-stealer (he’s the only major character who isn’t motion-captured, too), but it’s a minor Spielberg overall, one of the entertaining ones that doesn’t want or need to touch on any of the fascinating, maddening ambiguities that have made films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report and War of the Worlds the real growers on his c.v. Plus, I keep getting distracted by questions of the technology. It keeps asking us to look to a future where this kind of animation is the norm, the way films are made now, even as it wants to be a standalone, state-of-the-art spectacle, or at least that’s the way the marketing needs to fling at us. At the same time, that startling modernity is always the shiny wrapper on something familiar. I shouldn’t be surprised that Tintin is more than a little bit old-school, since it’s an argument I’ve made before: every new “landmark” in filmic imaging technology is first put to work on repurposing, revisualising something old, whether it’s a 2D comic-book (how better to stress the developments from source to adaptation, while still gesturing towards respect for the original, than to add motion to something still, depth to something flat?), a previously franchised monster (see the various iterations of King Kong, or the monster-movie tributes in Jurassic Park), or a staunchly classical narrative (it’s not a coincidence that Avatar, for all its rhetoric of innovation, was built around a frontier narrative). There’s no law that dictates that filmmakers need to couch all innovation in relation to the past, but it seems to be an unavoidable way to cushion the technofuturistic blow.[I realise I got all the way through this without noting the presence of 3D. I’m sure you’ll be similarly oblivious when you see the film. If I just say that the 3D in this film is as good as it’s going to get, please don’t try to interpret it as a compliment.]

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