The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

“We can’t go back, not now!… Not now.”

Introduction

I have wrote many posts on Tintin. I have listened to the semi-positive press about the film – and some of the negative press. Critics comparing this film with E.T. and how “that film had emotional depth” without even considering how this is an adaptation of someone’s work and not Spielberg’s story – as E.T. was. More importantly, I believe Spielberg and Peter Jackson have been attempting to build up the publicity by going on the press junket’s alongside Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis – detailing how Spielberg could only release this film using this medium of mo-cap tehcnology whilst Peter Jackson creates humour to highlight his own passion for the quiffed-character: “we wouldn’t change his trousers…”. My own attitude has remained supportive – only the nay-sayers worried me, but deep-down I knew that when a film bombs, it royally bombs. I vividly recall hoping Quantum of Solace to be amazing and then seeing the barrage of abuse the film got in the press … could it really be that bad? Indeed it was. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn got no such negativity – the odd few Tintinologists claiming it just “wasn’t the same” as the comics, whilst cynical critics would argue that “though my nine-year-old self would enjoy it, the cynic 30-year old wanted more…”.

How did it truly stack up ….

Establishing an Icon
Tintin is introduced at a market as he sits for a portrait – Hergé is the artist who paints him. We see multiple pictures on the artists stall of the characters we know from the comics – The Bird Brothers amongst others. Tintin holds the Hergé animation alongside himself, the CGI version and asks Snowy – and us – “What d’you think?”. As if Hergé himself passed the candle onto Spielberg to continue the story. One thing so many people state is a problem is the “dead eye” of computer-animated characters – highlighting the fact that they are not real. To accept that this is “real” is a big ask for anyone and, even in Avatar I found it difficult to truly ‘believe’ the story as they were freakishly big blue-characters running through the forrest. The whole “dead eye” argument is completely flawed – you don’t watch The Lion King or Up! and become less involved as the characters are animated. The animators at Disney observed actual lions when animating The Lion King and this technology merely guarantees a much more accurate reading of body-movement and fluidity in character. Even in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves we see the naturally-human character of Snow White dancing with the cartoon-y-dancing two dwarves on top of each other … did the audiences in 1937 complain about the falseness of the dwarves jarring with the much-more human characteristics of Snow White? No.
The characteristics of Tintin are simple – the oval head, the quick quiff – and to humanise it too much would remain false to the readers of the comics. After watching the film, I can completely see that the characterisation and combination of action and almost-live-action could only be achieved using this technology. The film would not be as faithful to Hergé’s drawings if it was completely live-action … and if it was completely animated then it would merely be a grand version of the animated series released in 1991.
The Swashbuckling Tale of Sir Francis Haddock
As the first film, this is about establishing the characters and for us, as an audience, to simply be swept along with the story. Tintin is initially on his own as Saccharine (Daniel Craig) and he both attempt to hunt down a model ship of The Unicorn. There is something about this model that holds the key to something – there is a connection to Marlinspike Hall, a connection to Sir Francis Haddock and a group of pirates led by Red Rackham. How this connects to our characters we learn as the story progresses.
The stunning landscapes are what makes this film truly exquisite. I remember watching Cars 2 and, though wholly disappointed watching the excuse-for-a-story, the establishing shots of the cities Lightning McQueen and Mater visited always looked incredible. It is even more impressive in The Secret of the Unicorn as the locations are integral to the plot – initially starting in a European city (Brussells? Paris?) with all the architecture and nature, before we switch location to a boat where Haddock appears to be held against his will: it is dark and cold as the camera swoops around and across the decks. The entire sequence in Bagghar is breathtaking – our initial establishing sequence revealing the city’s hustle and bustle almost takes us out of the semi-animated nature of motion-capture as it looks so accurate.
Spielberg in his Sandbox
I have an ongoing debate with my Dad about the purpose of films – I expect films to hold meaning, depth and history whilst my Dad primarily expects cinema to be entertaining; a good way to pass a couple of hours. I believe The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is primarily adventure and entertainment – indeed Spielberg knows how to deliver this. But Spielberg excels at delivering entertainment on a grand and visually magnificent level. The camerawork is new and fascinating – we see transistions as landscapes merge from epic-scale to small-scale – a small boat in the middle of the sea becomes a small boat on a puddle which the Thompson Twins walk through; the hand that holds a secret parchment of paper transitions into the African desert.
Further to this, we realise that, in this motion-capture world, the camera can do anything. The camera regularly follows characters through impossible spaces – chasing snowy through houses and out onto the road as the dog leaps and bounds through cows and onto trucks. This is what makes the film so incredible as, in the climax of the film in Bagghar the camera tracks and swings between multiple characters on a fast-paced chase – Haddock falls through clothes line, falling into dresses before landing on a street … behind him Snowy sits on a small metal boat and the camera moves to follow Snowy before a falcon swoops into shot, stealing the parchments and the camera follows the falcon up in the air and back down again. It truly is incredible. Spielberg knows he can do anything and takes full advantage … I know that this one sequence alone excites me to watch the film again.
Faithful and Fun?
In closing, as a fan of the comics, I cannot help but be bias. I know some sequences are pulled directly from the comics – a juxtaposition of Haddock himself acting out the story of Sir Francis Haddock as we visually see the swashbuckling hero fight against Red Rackham. Hergé has not been forgotten and it is clear that Spielberg is clearly trying to ensure that this is an adaptation that does not ignore what Hergé was all about – the comedy may be playful and, dare I say it, childish, but Hergé clearly modelled the Thompson twins on Chaplin and the drunkard Haddock is not [mind the pun] watered down: He is very much drunk and very much fuelled by his alcoholism. Personally I had hoped to see the Tintin-shaped-bottle in the desert, but c’est la vie.
This is Adventure with a captial A. Spielberg is setting up our characters and the tone of the films in place – and it lacks depth due to this. In fact, I think Tintin is so likeable that when the film veers off to focus on Haddock, the film seems to slow-down. But there has to be an appetite for this type of adventure before Spielberg and Jackson can expand upon the story and inject more meaning and depth in the future. The film ends with Tintin asking Haddock whether he wants more adventure … and this is what is asked of the audience. I only hope the answer is ‘yes’ because we do not need adventure in the form-of-robots fighting each other or blue-aliens acting out Dances with Wolves. We want well-made, enjoyable heroes who have space to grow in the future and, it seems, from here it can only get better and I firmly believe it will. Indeed, “We can’t go back, not now!… Not now.”
A solid start to the franchise with likeable characters and great adventure – connected together with a brilliant use of camera and editing. Let’s hope this can be expanded upon further in the future to provide a film with more depth and meaning.
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2 comments

  1. Just noticed this comment! Sorry Sam! Yeah, we get a few things earlier – I also managed to get to a press screening of WAR HORSE! So snuck in the other Spielberg before everyone too! Yay me!

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