Review: “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn”
Posted by therebelprince on January 2, 2012
Today, I’m reviewing the film The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn.
Let me preface this review by saying that I am a Tintin buff. If you want to discuss the emergence of Hergé’s research – evolving from, say, The Blue Lotus to Explorers on the Moon; or the slowly decreasing role of Snowy; or the variations in artistic merit that distinguish a middle album like King Ottokar’s Sceptre from the later studio-designed works; or, say, the Chinese puzzle box that is The Castafiore Emerald, I’m your man. I’ve read, re-read, analysed, and vigorously dissected all 24 Tintin albums, as well as most of the English-language non-fiction works. All of which is to say that, I had a lot of doubts going into Steven Spielberg’s Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and it was going to be very hard to convince me of its merits.
It’s been a long road to this movie. The project itself has a long history, of waiting for the right technology, of wrangling the rights from the tetchy estate of Hergé, and, indeed, of convincing America – the only country on the globe that has never really embraced the boy reporter – to take on such this unknown character and his world of bizarre friends and enemies. Beyond that, in the 82 years since Tintin first appeared in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, his timeline is dotted with attempts to adapt the works. Some, like the early films or the non-canon Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, are generally considered flawed entries. Others, like the 1990s animated series, or the earlier radio dramas, are faithful adaptations that – while often well-done – can sometimes feel repetitive, and decidedly bookish.
In adapting Tintin for the big screen, Spielberg and Peter Jackson have done the impossible: created a work that lovingly renders Hergé’s world into gripping motion-capture animation, retaining the heart, maturity, and gleeful slapstick of the original, while translating the author’s intentions into film and, if anything, making the characters more interesting than their line-drawing equivalents. Okay, kids, don’t get me wrong. At the end of the day, I’ll take the original ligne claire drawings of Explorers on the Moon or The Calculus Affair any day. I’m not saying the film is better than the albums; it’s just a very, very good film in its own right.
The Secret of the Unicorn is based on a two-part Tintin album: the first of the same name, the second Red Rackham’s Treasure. Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his loyal dog Snowy become involved in a treasure hunt, after an impulse purchase at a junk market sees Tintin pursued by armed men. Along the way, they pick up drunken sea captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), and the bumbling police detectives Thomson (Simon Pegg) and Thompson (Nick Frost). The adventurers stumble into a centuries-old mystery about the fate of the Golden Age sailing vessel, The Unicorn, and the treasure alleged to be onboard when it sank. A modern day entrepreneur, Ivan Sakharine (a very strong Daniel Craig), is after this treasure, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it.
I have a confession to make: I rarely watch modern movies and, when I do, they’re rarely the type that require effects. So, I can’t really say whether this is any sort of major advancement in technology. But the film looks utterly incredible. It’s a two-hour rollercoaster ride, taking us from the sand dunes of Northern Africa to the high seas, via bustling Moroccan bazaars and cobbled Belgian streets. (Well, I assume they’re Belgian; the film seems to keep Tintin’s city of origin on the hush-hush.) Every scene is startling in its depth. The market where we first meet Tintin is filled with life, and every frame bulges with detail and amusing background images. A crackling lightning storm is nail-bitingly intense, as is a particularly beautifully-lit Belgian library. Particularly stunning are the scene transitions as Haddock – trapped with Tintin in the desert – retells the story of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, and his final voyage on the high seas.
The art of the movie evokes Hergé’s style in its clarity, but renders it into full-bodied animation. The action sequences – notably, the sparring of two burning pirate ships, and the climactic chase through Bagghar – move at full-throttle. The entire audience, including myself, really were on the edge of our seats. The film admirably refuses to sanitise the violence, yet still maintains a level of dignity. There is very little bloodshed, and while Tintin wields a gun often, he never uses it on people. Tintin isn’t The Doctor (although, even that famously non-violent time-traveller has grown rather gun-friendly of late), and he’s certainly not against the occasional merited physical fight in the albums.
There isn’t a misguided frame here. The detail of the characters themselves is simply exquisite. Every line, scar, and wrinkle is visible, and beautifully textured. The characters all look exactly as they should, from Tintin’s immaculate coif to the rippling cheeks of Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel). My particular delight was Allen (Daniel Mays), whose face is exactly like his comic counterpart! The film is sublimely directed, with gorgeous elements of chiaroscuro throughout. A scene in Tintin’s apartment is lit entirely by a torch on the floor; a chase onboard a ship at night is obscured for a moment by the glare from a revolving searchlight. This is simply one of the most beautiful films of the year, and I can’t wait to see what the artists could do with the lush palette of, say, The Calculus Affair, or the terrifyingly empty expanse of Explorers on the Moon.
Amazingly, the animation manages to create character where there previously was none. Notoriously, while the recurring characters are all larger than life, Tintin himself remains a blank slate throughout 21 of the 24 albums. Only in Tintin in Tibet and Tintin and the Picaros, and a few moments in the incomplete Tintin and Alph-Art, does he really develop a character. Most of the time, Tintin remains a tabula rasa: noble and intuitive, but lacking in flaws or complexities. This doesn’t stop him from being a dashing, resourceful hero (and, in fact, it gives revisionist writers like Frederic Tuten in his Tintin in the New World a lot to work with), but it’s always been a noteworthy point that ties the Tintin series to its stock genre of adventure serials. Here, Jamie Bell’s face as rendered in motion-capture, gives Tintin a vigour and intelligence that we must imagine in Hergé’s artwork. His relationship with Haddock, particularly, is full of wry looks that just make them a great partnership.
Haddock’s alcoholism was one of my biggest worries of the film. Would American censors decide that it was too much for their coddled, god-fearing little children to take? Instead, marvellously, the answer is: deal with it. Haddock is a loveable drunk from the moment we meet him. Certainly, Tintin does his best to dissuade the good Captain from drinking – and in a triumphant moment, he seems to make good on this – but we know, thankfully, that there’s no judgment. All the humour and hilarity of the character exists in full.
The first half of the film is really quite faithful to its source text – The Secret of the Unicorn. Thomson and Thompson (or, to be precise, Thompson and Thomson) pursue a prolific pickpocket (Toby Jones), while Tintin finds himself drawn into the strange mystery of the Unicorn. In the second half, things veer away somewhat, and I suspect a few Tintin fans will be annoyed. Truth be told, I’m elated. While the second volume, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is a masterful piece of writing, it is decidedly less filmic. Half the action takes place in the past, as we’re told the tale of Francis Haddock, and there is really no villain of the modern-day sequences. Instead, Tintin and Haddock simply search for the treasure. In the film, the charisma of Sakharine is in full swing. Mercifully, Sakharine is not interested in long taunting of his victims. He doesn’t talk in code, or frequently chastise his subordinates for being incompetent fools. Instead, he’s a canny, on-the-ball bad guy. A great villain, even if it does seem odd that he’s almost more interested in a centuries-old family squabble than treasure.
The showdown in sunny Morocco is gorgeous, and perfectly retains the atmosphere of Hergé’s original. The Moroccan sequence is hysterical and stomach-turning, as Tintin and his cohorts thoroughly destroy the port of Bagghar in their attempt to gain the scrolls which hold the secret to the treasure. It also delightfully involves Bianca Castafiore, one of only three recurring women in the Tintin canon (and the others, Tintin’s landlady Mrs. Finch, and Castafiore’s maid Irma, are background characters for the most part). The Milanese Nightingale perhaps doesn’t get enough to do here, but will hopefully be used more in a follow-up appearance. For an opera nerd like myself, it was a delight that Renee Freaking Fleming was chosen to sing Castafiore’s aria, which is given in full here, in a very Hitchcockian sequence as Tintin and Haddock gradually realise Sakharine’s sly plan during the diva’s performance at a sunny coastal mansion. On a sidenote, though, Tintin geeks will be aware that Castafiore’s trademark performance is the “Jewel song” from Gounod’s Faust. Perhaps because the plot hinges on a high note, she instead sings another Gounod number, from Roméo et Juliette, with a final note that has clearly been inserted separately.
Tom McCarthy, author of the delightfully abstruse Tintin and the Secret of Literature, has argued that the film lacks both the heart and gnomic intelligence of the albums. Mr. McCarthy, I must respectfully disagree. On the subject of intelligence, McCarthy can occasionally come across as an extra from The Emperor’s New Clothes. I don’t dispute that there are oft-hidden themes scattered throughout Hergé’s creations. McCarthy won me over with his argument that minute clues in Red Rackham’s Treasure link Haddock to King Louis XIV. And his exploration of Castafiore as a sexual metaphor certainly fits with Hergé’s Catholic school upbringing. At times, however, he is wont to find the face of Jesus in a tomato. While I can empathise with the desire for a truly literate adaptation, I think McCarthy should refrain from haranguing a Hollywood adaptation of a popular adventure series, and wait for the inevitable post-modern HBO miniseries that will emerge in about twenty years. (If no-one else does it, Tom, I’ll write it myself, just for you!)
On the subject of heart, meanwhile… well, no, The Secret of the Unicorn doesn’t have the raw emotion of Tintin in Tibet, nor of the socially angry Tintin and the Picaros. But, then, neither do the other albums! Tintin and Haddock work so well together here that we care for them almost instantaneously, and there’s a lovely level of maturity in their characterisations. Haddock in particular is so easily loveable, and there’s a true sense that his life has felt devoid of purpose for such a long time. Between this and the surprisingly adept use of Snowy – who could often be a cute but frustratingly repetitive comic relief figure in the later albums – made it a worthwhile attempt at characterisation, for me. (Snowy doesn’t speak or think in this version of Tintin, but the script perfectly balances his more comic, sandwich-stealing side, with an ardent support of his master.) Certainly, the film omits that third-act fight/separation/reunion sequence of so many adventure stories, be it Toy Story or Harry Potter, but isn’t that a plus? There’s never the feeling that this was written from a template.
Incidentally, I take issue with McCarthy’s complaint about the slapstick of the film being gauche, and the adventure feeling fantastical. Last time I checked, Hergé was never against a bit of silliness – case in point, a notorious rendezvous with some sticking plaster – and, despite his desire to see every moment in the 24-album series as an academic treatise on the nature of authenticity and fakery, McCarthy perhaps ignores a humbling truth. Many, many moments in Tintin take their origins from silent movie serials. Tintin faces a firing squad, or landmines, or an aggressive rhino, only to be saved at the start of the very next page. Occasionally, these tense moments are completely without merit – the landmine incident is resolved simply by explaining that the landmines must have been duds!. Which is not to say that I doubt the masterful nature of the series, but it’s a bit far fetched to complain about the stunning images of Tintin and Haddock escaping the Karaboudjan.
Finally, there are countless references cheekily hidden in the film for long-time fans. From the opening credits, which reference Syldavia and the Black Island, we are led to Tintin’s apartment, where newspaper articles and posters commemorate his previous adventures. (Cleverly, the adventures are all ones set chronologically before The Secret of the Unicorn, and not featuring Haddock or Professor Calculus. These were always less likely to be made into films – although they could always be done in the future as past adventures, particularly Cigars of the Pharaoh/The Blue Lotus – and it was lovely to see them referenced.) Beyond that, we briefly see Tintin’s landlady, Mrs. Finch (who shows little surprise when a man is shot on their doorstep), and were those tins of crab meat Snowy knocked over in a mid-film sequence? (The Crab With The Golden Claws is also a source text for this film, providing us with the storyline of Haddock being held by his own crew, and of the trip through the desert.) Most delightfully is the opening joke, wherein a streetside artist, modelled directly on Hergé (who had a Hitchcockian habit of inserting himself into the background of frames), finishes a portrait of Tintin, which looks exactly like his ligne claire self!
If you want to pick at it, go ahead. The action is unrelenting, yes, but I felt as if there were a few quieter moments – Tintin and Haddock in the lifeboat, the arrival of La Castafiore – which are artfully mixed with tension from the previous scenes. And perhaps the final two minutes, while designed – like the album – to suggest merely that Tintin and Haddock will have many further adventures, instead come across for a moment like the film is about to go on for another half-hour. But those are minor concerns. The film looks utterly amazing, refusing to rest on the laurels of its technology, but instead imbue every frame with exquisite playing of colour and light. The characters and situations are faithful to the original work, yet without sacrificing the grandeur of the big screen. (I’ve never understood the desire to see things literally adapted. Sure, it’s annoying when something you love is changed grotesquely for another medium, where millions of people will see and misjudge your passion – *coughSweeneyToddcough* – but we have the original 24 albums, and now hopefully so will others!)
The trailer for Journey 2: The Mysterious Island played before the film, and, my god, it looks like one of the most terrible films ever made. Five one-dimensional characters enter a world full of CGI, with no heart, and a generic template of a script designed to make sure everyone in the family has something to enjoy. And, lest children ever for a moment be scared, any tense scene is instantly deflated with a pathetic, cheap joke, so that you’ll never have to worry about being drawn into the world of the film. Instead, unlike so many adventure films, Tintin maintains a surprising amount of maturity in amongst the slapstick and exhilaration. Who would ever have thought we’d see Haddock make a joke about “animal husbandry”?
Quite simply, The Adventures of Tintin is a triumph. As a child, I used to adapt the works into screenplays (although, being a child, I wrote them in theatre format, having no idea that a separate writing structure applied for film!), and so I’ve been holding out to see these characters on screen for quite some time. I’m utterly thrilled that my beloved reporter and his gang have been so carefully rendered on screen, and it appears we’ll be getting at least one more. I’d expect The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoner of the Sun to be the most likely candidate, but the talent and precision of this film gives me faith that, even if the producers choose a true turkey like Flight 714, they’ll be able to make it another cinematic gem.
My other late night rants can be found here.