The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

2014 #134
Steven Spielberg | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn1981: Steven Spielberg reads a French review of his movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. His high-school-level French serves him well enough, although there’s repeated use of one word he doesn’t know: Tintin.

25 years later: Spielberg has been struggling to make a film version of Hergé’s character for quarter of a century. While developing a live-action version that would feature actors under heavy prosthetics so as to resemble their comic book counterparts, he realises Tintin’s famous dog, Snowy, will need to be computer generated. He reaches out to Peter Jackson and Weta, fresh off their ground-breaking work on The Lord of the Rings. Their test footage is so successful, it gives Spielberg another idea…

2011: after 30 years, Spielberg finally brings the boy reporter to the big screen as a motion-captured animation. Reviews and public reception are mixed, particularly in the US, but they’re all daft because The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is bloody brilliant.

Combining events from three of Hergé’s original albums, the story sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchase a model ship that is highly desired by the mysterious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). A riddle hidden inside the model sets the ever-inquisitive reporter on a quest to find out what nefarious deeds Sakharine is planning, along the way bumping into drunkard Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who holds the key to the entire mystery. Cue a globetrotting adventure that, yes, is very much in the Indiana Jones mould.

Tintin and HaddockApparently some Tintin purists weren’t so keen on the actual adaptation — elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws have been mixed in to a plot primarily taken from The Secret of the Unicorn, the sequel/second half of which, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is reportedly used sparingly. Plus, in the original tale Sakharine is a minor character who wasn’t responsible for much, apparently. As someone who’s only read one of those three volumes, and even then not since I was young, such things didn’t trouble me. What superstar screenwriters Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat, Edgar “Cornetto trilogy” Wright and Joe “Attack the Block” Cornish have captured is the spirit of Tintin: an engrossing mystery-adventure, laced with gentle satire and smidgens of slapstick comedy, but with real stakes and peril too.

A talented cast are up to the task. Bell adopts a posh-ish accent for the titular hero, and while some of the accusations of blandness aren’t wholly misplaced, he’s plucky and determined enough to make for an appealing lead. The king of mo-cap, Serkis, is able support as Haddock, while Craig makes for a very effective villain — I hope his post-Bond career, whenever that arrives, sees him playing villainous roles more often. Interestingly, it was his mannerisms that have survived the animation process the most. I mean it in an entirely non-critical way when I say every other character could have any actor behind the mo-cap baubles, but Sakharine’s face and body move with all the recognisable movements and expressions of his actor.

Of course he can't talk, he's a dogThe slapstick is mainly hoisted by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the physically-identical Thomson and Thompson — a true advantage of animation, that. I imagine some find their parts tiresome because of their inherently comic role, but they’re likeable versions of the characters. Even more joyous is Snowy, though. Well, I would like him, wouldn’t I? His internal monologue, such a memorable part of Hergé’s books, is omitted (as it is from every film version to date, I believe), but he’s full of character nonetheless. Some of the best sequences involve Snowy running in to save the day. I don’t think they quite got the animation model right (the one glimpsed in test footage included in behind-the-scenes featurettes looks better, for my money), but his characterisation overcomes that.

Bit of an aside, but I think there’s something notable about almost everyone mentioned so far: Moffat, Wright, Cornish, Bell, Serkis, Craig, Pegg, Frost… All British. I know that’s because we’re awesome ‘n’ all, but I think it’s also indicative of Tintin’s status in the English-speaking world — which more or less boils down to “unknown in America”, but also “pretty darn popular in Britain”. At least Spielberg, the man who wanted to cast an American as Harry Potter, seems to know this (further evidence: they’ve hired another British screenwriter for the sequel). For whatever reason, Tintin has never clicked in America, while the books remain very popular over here. It therefore feels like there’s a better chance for the films’ fidelity by using Brits (who have the correct tone and style almost ingrained) than by using people coming to the stories entirely for the first time, and perhaps bringing a more generic blockbuster sensibility. On the other hand, this might just be a horribly xenophobic way of interpreting a coincidental appearance by so many Brits in key roles — after all, Tintin’s Belgian, so it’s not like using Brits is “true to source”.

Action directionOf course, one very important person is neither British nor Belgian: Spielberg. The screenplay’s balance between peril and comedy is spotlessly enhanced by his peerless direction. In a world stuffed to the gills with lesser blockbusters that palely imitate the groundwork Spielberg and co laid in the ’70s and ’80s, work like this should remind people why he’s still the master of the form. The film is shot with an eye for realism (so much so that some viewers have been convinced it was filmed on real locations with real actors, with some CG augmentation for the cartoonish faces, of course), which helps lend a sense of plausibility and also genuine jeopardy. It’s easy to get carried away when working in CG animation, but often the most impressive works are ones that behave as if they’ve been shot largely within the limitations of real-world filmmaking technology.

That said, Spielberg isn’t afraid to make use of the freedom afforded by working in a computer-generated realm when appropriate: there are some spectacular individual shots, the most obvious being a single-take chase sequence down a hillside through a town. Even better are some of the transitions, which would be literally impossible to realise in live-action — without resorting to effects work, anyway. They’re hard to accurately describe, especially without ruining them, in part because each instance is different; but they do all look incredible, and, again, serve the story rather than being flashy for the sake of it.

It always went ok on Flight Simulator...The tone on the whole is resolutely PG — actually, like many an action-adventure blockbuster used to be before everything went slightly darker and PG-13. So, for example, Tintin wields a gun on occasion, but never at another human being. The focus is on the story, which happens to lead to some adrenaline-pumping sequences, rather than a lightweight excuse to link together a bunch of punch-ups and chases. Ironically (though, for anyone who knows what they’re talking about, entirely expectedly) this makes the action all the more exciting. It also mean there’s a lighter touch than many current blockbusters offer; a greater presence for humour, including among the action. I guess that’s not fashionable these days, when everyone’s become so po-faced about their big-budget entertainment. However, with the likes of Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy proving immensely popular, perhaps the tide is turning, and maybe the still-on-the-cards Jackson-helmed sequel will find itself better received because of that.

I genuinely don’t understand the muted reaction to this first Tintin, though. It perhaps shows where blockbusters have gone awry in the last decade or two, and perhaps the incidental disdain animation is viewed with among some — I wonder: if the same movie had been produced in live-action, would some of those critics have been better disposed to it? I don’t think it would have actually been a better film, and perhaps it would even have been slightly worse (some of the visual impact would be lost), Herge's Adventures of Tintin!but some viewers would have seen it (even subconsciously) as more of a “real movie”.

As I said at the start, those people are Wrong. The Adventures of Tintin is a fantastic adventure movie, and should prove to anyone who doubted Spielberg after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that, when it comes to globetrotting action-adventures, he’s still the man to beat.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is on BBC One today at 4:25pm.

It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

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6 thoughts on “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

  1. Nice to read your thoughts on this and there isn’t a lot I disagree with. I’ve never really got those people who criticise films for veering away from the source material, even slightly, as though the original is so unimpeachable and cannot be improved upon – I think they got the spirit of the Tintin stories and its characters pretty much nailed on, and kept the fast moving ethos and humour of the books present and correct, so what exactly was the problem?

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    • I think there’s a real disjunct between how many audience members view adaptations (“just copy & paste the book into a screenplay format”) and how screenwriters/producers/etc look on it.

      I took a few screenwriting courses as part of my degree, and we were taught that the sort of ‘best practice’ for adapting was to take a work’s essential elements (plot, characters, key sequences, etc), then throw the original out and build a ‘new’ screenplay from those elements. I’m sure that’s not the only way to go about it — certainly adaptations of very-well-known/beloved books try their damnedest to be ultra-faithful (Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, etc) — but I think quite a number of adaptations are done that way, which is why you almost always hear die-hard fans moaning about a lack of faithfulness, even while ‘casual’ viewers can enjoy themselves.

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      • The trouble I’ve always had with being faithful to the source work is that it leads to accusations of why bother at all? Why not just read the book? It seems to me to be an easy criticism by loyalists – case in point, the absence of Tom Bombadil from Fellowship of the Ring. Why Jackson would have used a minor character who’s basically a hippy and who serves no purpose to the wider plot is anyone’s guess, but his absence was seen as a real problem for some readers. For me, as long as the spirit is intact the rest ought to be fine.

        Sounds like the sort of degree I wish I’d done, in any case.

        Liked by 1 person

        • And more often than not, there’s a good reason for the change — some stuff simply doesn’t work on film like it does in the book. There are a couple of bits in The Da Vinci Code that work fine on the page (y’know, within the scope of the kind of book it is), but the film really has to jump through hoops to replicate them on screen. That’s faithful, but a poor adaptation.

          Point of fact, changes in adaptation can even improve on the original full stop. Some fans hate that Watchmen changed the ending, but the film’s version is neater, better-constructed, and ties in to the rest of the narrative better than the novel’s almost-out-of-nowhere semi-random very-comic-book-y climax.

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        • Watchmen is a very good example of the belligerence of the book fans, isn’t it? I didn’t think there was a lot wrong with the adaptation, and it captured the melancholic overtones of the book really well, but because it wasn’t 100% faithful it was suddenly complete shite for Moore lovers. Sometimes, you wonder why Snyder bothered, beyond reasons grounded in an ego running away with itself of course.

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