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

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (USA, 2011)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg


Because of the high regard in which Tintin is held around the world, it's fair to assume that any film adaptation would fall short of the mark in some way, shape or form. For all the charm and appeal of past adaptations, in film, TV and on the stage, none of them have truly captured the magic and intrigue of Hergé's iconic hero. With this in mind, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have delivered a film of real brio and excitement which, while by no means definitive, is definitely worth your time.While the marriage between Spielberg directing and Jackson producing seems like a match made in heaven, both have been guilty recently of falling short of the mark - Spielberg with the unremarkable Indy 4, and Jackson with his misjudged take on The Lovely Bones. Likewise, it is not safe to assume that their combined affection for the source material will translate into a brilliant adaptation. Tim Burton has long professed his love for Alice in Wonderland, but when he finally got the chance to express said love, he came a cropper.Fittingly enough, the film begins with some Burton-esque opening credits, in which we are gradually introduced to the Tintin universe while the various names fly past. The opening animation gleefully replicates the feel of the comics, drawing on the plot of The Seven Crystal Balls and capturing every detail, right down to the drawn-on gasps. It has the same playful feel as the Pink Panther opening credits, and goes some way to both setting the scene and reassuring the fans that they are in safe hands.It is also a relief that Spielberg and Jackson's big creative decision quickly pays off (and no, I don't mean the 3D). The Adventures of Tintin was shot entirely in motion capture, with post-production taking nearly a year to accurately re-create the comics. The technology as employed here is the best it's ever been at capturing people: it is incredibly photorealistic but lacks the eerie, dead-eyed quality of Robert Zemeckis' efforts. As a side point, digital animation has a habit of making characters seem ballooned and bloated, which suits Haddock and the two detectives rather well.When War of the Worlds was released in 2005, Terry Gilliam remarked that Spielberg was a man who "makes brilliant scenes but can't make a movie anymore." Regardless of one's views on War of the Worlds (it's better than the original), it is undoubtedly true that the highlights of Tintin are the set-pieces. Of course, set-pieces in and of themselves do not make for a gripping piece of narrative. But to dismiss Spielberg and Jackson's expertise in this area is to do both of them a great disservice.The set-pieces in The Adventures of Tintin are consistently inventive and exciting. The pirate battle, which is told by Haddock in flashback, finds two ships getting locked by their masts at right angles during a storm; people are running up and down the various riggings with fire, water and gunfire all around them. It kicks all four Pirates of the Caribbean films into a cocked three-cornered hat, and reminds you of the classic pirate and swashbuckling films of old-school Hollywood.Equally spectacular is the city chase, in which the three scrolls containing the location of the treasure change hands on multiple occasions. During this ten-minute sequence, Tintin and Haddock chase the bad guys in a jeep, one of whom has a hawk carrying the scrolls. At one point Tintin's bike breaks in half and he uses the front-wheel as a zipwire to slide down a telegraph line and capture the scrolls. In another moment, he is literally hanging onto the hawk as it fights to stay in the air. While all this is going on, a tank careers into a hotel and starts rolling down a street with the hotel attached. It finally comes to a halt right on the sea front, and the owner comes out and adds another star to its rating - a witty pay-off that could only have come from the man who gave us Indiana Jones.Set-pieces like this are thrillingly executed, and leave the ten-year-old boy in me screaming "Wow!". But there is a side-effect to all the comparisons with Indy. The more the similarities keep stacking up, the more you wish that Spielberg could have gone back and simply filmed them for real. Most of the stunts I have listed would have looked amazing in real life and could be achieved without much in the way of CGI. Seeing it animated, especially in motion capture, deprives us of that raw physical thrill that we got from Indy, so that while the film as a whole is more exciting than Indy 4, it's a lot less endearing than the original trilogy.And it's not just Indy that Spielberg is tipping his fedora to in this film. There are multiple big references to Jaws: the first comes in the shark falling from the ceiling on board the ship, and the second with Tintin's quiff bobbing above water like a shark's fin as he sneaks up on the plane he downed with a pistol. References like this produce knowing laughs and are in a sense reassuring: we are definitely getting Spielberg in proper popcorn mode, whether by choice or through Jackson's gentle persuasion.More problematic than the Indy resemblances is the story itself. The film combines the narratives of three of the books - The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure and The Crab with the Golden Claws. There is some reasoning behind this, since many of the Tintin stories are quite short and self-contained. This is one reason why the series worked up to a point on TV and especially well on radio (regardless of Andy Serkis' best efforts, Leo McKern remains the definitive Haddock).Despite the assured writing talents of Edgar Wright and Steven Moffatt, The Adventures of Tintin's story is decidedly stodgy. It takes a good twenty minutes for the film to get into gear, not from adjusting to the visuals but from getting used to the massively expository tone. Combining three stories together means that plot points are merged and mashed together awkwardly, causing us to miss out on great moments and characters. There is no room for Professor Calculus, Max Bird or the sunken submarine. Leaving out the latter makes us question why it wasn't enough to do Unicorn and Rackham together, turning a two-part story into 90 minutes.The supporting characters in the film are enjoyable but all a little slim. Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) are quite funny in all their little scenes, but their limited role in the search for treasure leaves us wondering why they keep turning up at all. Bianca Castafiore, the opera singer whom Haddock despises, only turns up very briefly, and the film almost misses the big gag that she can't actually sing. Worst of all is Snowy: while physically expressive, he doesn't get to 'talk' or impart much of his inner thoughts to the audience. In the absence of a 'talking' Snowy, you need a stronger third character, like Professor Calculus, to complete the triangle.There seems to be a trend in modern screenwriting to take a sideways view at stories which are good and hardy enough to be told straight. Even if Disney had been constantly sanitising his vision, Burton's Alice in Wonderland would have been a much better film if it had told the story as it has always been enjoyed. While there is no such possible contempt shown for Hergé, it is something that should be borne in mind for when Jackson comes to direct the sequel.The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a decent and enjoyable romp, at least when viewed in 2D. Neither Spielberg or Jackson are firing on all cylinders - though the latter's involvement with The Hobbit is as good an excuse as you need. But that said it is more enjoyable than Indy 4, and perhaps the closest that Spielberg has come to matching the spirit of Indy in the last ten years of his career. In the end it's flawed but good fun, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Rating:
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Verdict: Spectacular but narratively stodgy

4 comments:

niels85 said...

Very interesting to read. I will probably give the movie a go, considering that even if Spielberg doesn't always go right, he practically never goes wrong.
I always wonder why I don't come back to this blog more often knowing how well you guys always seem to analyze a film.
Don't forget to drop by my blog either!

Niels

Daniel Mumby said...

Cheers Niels, you're very kind. Will be sure to check your blog out :)

reyne martin said...

I am a huge fan of Tin Tin and his adventures. I also like the film which is directed by Steven Spielberg. He is also one of my favorite director.
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Daniel Mumby said...

Thanks for the blatant advertising

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