Even though I haven’t been blogging regularly, I had to capture some of my thoughts about The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, if just for the fact that we in the UK got to see the film long before arriving on North American screens, which makes for a nice change.
Despite the fact that I’m comic book fan, I didn’t read the graphic novels of Georges ‘Herge’ Remy as a child; why this is the case, I do not know, especially as my brothers and I devoured the other prong of continental European graphic albums that invaded the UK, Asterix, but I should include the fact as a disclaimer. Therefore, I didn’t have any emotional investment in the cinematic adaptation of the ageless journalist adventurer Tintin (unlike my better half, who has read and loved the books since her teenage years).
Before wittering further, I should summarise my opinion: I thought that the film was perfectly fine but nothing great, especially with the calibre of creators involved (a script by Steve ‘Doctor Who and Sherlock‘ Moffat, Edgar ‘Spaced/Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz/Scott Pilgrim‘ Wright and Joe ‘Attack the Block‘ Cornish, produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Steven Spielberg – surely a Platonic ideal creative team for Tintin). I just hope I wasn’t expecting too much from such great folk.
Perhaps Tintin works best on the page – the exquisite clear line of Herge’s artwork, the detailed images he created (he used a lot of photographic reference for accuracy) that occasionally veer into pure art in some of the splash pages, the ability to have a talking dog (or the notion that Tintin believes that Snowy talks to him) which is accepted by the reader, the silliness of the slapstick without the pain, the vagueness of time and place (is it the 1930s? Is it mainland Europe?): these are aspects of a comic that can be difficult to translate into a different medium and conserve the special qualities that make something distinct. However, the motion-capture CGI is very impressive – this is not the dead eyes of Beowulf or The Polar Express. The result is a successful combination of a photorealistic style based on Herge’s art style (but without the excess of caricature employed in the books), with special mention for Captain Haddock, helped no doubt by Andy Serkis’s performance (who employs a broad Scottish brogue for the part, which sounded to me like an impression of the great rugby union commentator, Bill McLaren), with a wonderfully expressive face to match the excess of character in Haddock himself.
The opening credits were a nice touch – an different animation style (a 1960s European feel to them), with some nice nods to various Tintin stories, and even that little swirl behind the feet that Herge used to indicate movement – and the film starts with a lovely introductory scene and in-joke for Tintin and his creator. But it doesn’t take long for the film to get underway, with a plot that keeps the film motoring all the way through to the end with barely a pause for breath, based on a mash-up of the books The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure and a hint of The Crab With The Golden Claws. There is humour and excitement and spectacle, as well as one of the most blatant ‘this isn’t the end, it’s just the first part in a series’ I think I’ve seen in a while. It just doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Another disclaimer: I didn’t watch this in 3D, even though the CGI meant that it would have been true 3D, so I can’t speak for the use of it in the film. However, based on some parts, it would have been a mixture of impressive and hideous. For example, the scene where Haddock ‘relives’ the life of his ancestor: in the books, it’s recounted from a journal (not very cinematic); in the film, Spielberg can cut between shots in fantastically imaginative fashion, jumping from the desert to a ship on the high seas, or reflections off a sword to jump between past and present, and it looks spectacular in 2D. However, a climactic scene where Haddock and villain Sakharine fight each other in a dock by smashing loading cranes into each other is chaotic (and not something you would have seen in a live-action film): the power of CGI goes to Spielberg’s head, as he whirls the camera around like a dervish, swooshing through windows and gaps in the crane’s structure, deranged camerawork that flips and wheels in a dizzying display that might have caused headaches if watched in 3D. It must be the director’s dream, to have the ability to move a camera wherever his or her imagination can follow, and Spielberg does it very well, but it can also look a mess.
There is enough in the film to keep people entertained, even if some of it seems familiar (a chase scene in an Arabic town, with the previously mentioned impossible camerawork, seems to be a homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it doesn’t quite manage the balance that was achieved seemingly effortlessly in the books. The strangest choice, which seems most out of character for a Tintin story, is the ‘joke’ of Haddock accidentally firing a bazooka into the wall of a dam over a town, so that it releases the water behind it all over the populace below. The scene is played for laughs as they escape the flood, but surely it killed lots of innocent locals? It seems thoroughly bizarre, and highlights the gap between getting it wrong and getting it right. It means that The Adventures of Tintin doesn’t achieve the heights it could have.