Written by: Droid (Read his other reviews and ramblings at Werewolves on the Moon)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Motion capture cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Mays, Gad Elmaleh, Joe Starr
Running time: 107 mins | Rating: PG
When, in 1929, Georges Rémi created a comic strip about a young investigative journalist named Tintin who, along with his faithful dog, Snowy, got swept up in mysterious adventures across the globe, little must he have known how extraordinarily popular his stories would become. From just 22 years old, Rémi, a Belgian artist working under the pen name Hergé, created 23 vivid, exciting adventure stories that took Tintin and Snowy to the far reaches of the globe. From the peaks of the Himalayas, to the Sahara desert, and the jungles of the Congo. And even to the moon. Tintin always found himself at the heart of a mystery, and through pluck, bravery and ingenuity, he would thwart the bad guy and save the day. In animated storybooks, Rémi created simple, detailed, expertly paced stories laced with visual wit. Some of the views of the time are antiquated, and there was recently a bit of a storm in a teacup concerning the portrayal of Africans in ‘Tintin in the Congo’ (Tintin’s second adventure, written in 1931). This aside, The Adventures of Tintin remains to this day a creative, fun, exciting and entertaining read for young readers, and a great piece of nostalgia for those who grew up on them.
So how did probably the most successful director of the past 40 years come to direct the adaptation? As the story goes, Spielberg was in France doing press for ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’, and one journalist compared Indy to Tintin. Once Spielberg found out what a Tintin was (the usual response from an American), he read and loved the books and sought out to make a feature film. Rights came and went, live action turned to computer animation and motion capture. Peter Jackson became involved with the intention of directing the second film himself (which looks likely). Finally, after 82 years, 23 books, a TV cartoon series (which is excellent by the way), and a couple of misguided French live action film versions in the 60’s, we finally get Steven Spielberg’s motion capture adventure film, “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn”. The only director who Hergé himself thought capable of doing justice to the material. Was he proven correct?
In a busy flea market, Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a replica of an old sailing ship named the Unicorn. The Unicorn was captained by the legendary Sir Francis Haddock, and Tintin is immediately approached by Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), the man who has purchased the Haddock estate. He is desperate to complete the collection. Tintin declines the offer, and later discovers his home burgled. For within the Unicorn lies a piece of a puzzle. A puzzle that leads our inquisitive hero and his faithful dog, Snowy on an intercontinental race to track down the other pieces, solve the mystery, thwart the bad guy and return the birthright to Sir Francis Haddocks last remaining descendent, the miserable drunkard Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis).
Steven Spielberg hasn’t exactly been on a hot streak of late. While I’m a big fan of ‘Minority Report’, and ‘Munich’ was quite good, for the most part his films since ‘Schindlers List’ have been middle of the road (‘Catch Me If You Can’) or downright terrible (‘The Terminal’). One thing that strikes me about his filmmaking style over the past fifteen years is that it feels pedestrian. When he gets a scene right, they are as good as anyone could make them, such as the telephone bomb scene in ‘Munich’ or the robot spiders scene in ‘Minority Report’, but it’s all too often that his films lack energy, with his use of the camera settling in to unremarkable efficiency. In other words, his directing style felt complacent. ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ is the most obvious example, with its plodding pacing and somber mood. So why am I talking about this? Well, with the decision by Spielberg to shoot ‘Tintin’ as a motion capture animated film, he was forced to embrace new technology (he has previously stated he would always shoot on film). This is his first animated film, and as it’s motion capture he had to shoot on digital with a virtual camera. The result is astounding. This doesn’t appear to be the same Spielberg. ‘Tintin’ is easily the most energetic, fun and entertaining Spielberg film since ‘Jurassic Park’. He throws the camera about with wanton abandon, travelling through windows and walls, nooks and crannies while simultaneously keeping the audience perfectly aware of the geography of the scene. He appears to have embraced the creative freedom of being able to put the camera anywhere he wants. What this results in is a pacing that is nothing short of breakneck, as Tintin and Snowy (and the audience) get swept up in the mystery. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
But this new found freedom and energy also creates ‘Tintin’s biggest problem. It’s not a big one, but it’s enough to keep this from getting 4 stars. As a whole, the film moves much too fast. From scene to scene, action set piece to action set piece. Although it’s not a major criticism, the breakneck pace is virtually unrelenting, with one scene leading directly into the next with few pauses in between. I would’ve loved the film to have taken just a little bit more time to unfold. I used to read the books at my own pace, often taking a few minutes to look over all the illustrated frames on each page. Spielberg’s obviously a speed reader, as ‘Tintin’ moves at ludicrous speed from start to finish. This problem is accentuated by the almost immediate cut from the epic Morocco chase scene to the thundering destruction of the giant sword fight finale. The pause between scenes being, oh, almost 30 seconds.
The Morocco chase scene has to be seen to be believed. In one astonishing single shot, Spielberg dusts off the mantle as Hollywood’s best event film director with an eye-popping demonstration of sustained movement and escalation. It’s the entire bus sequence of Speed condensed into a breathless 10 minutes as Tintin and Haddock frantically chase the pieces of the puzzle through the oceanside Moroccan town, causing mass destruction as they go. It’s one of the best action scenes I’ve seen in a very long time, and pays tribute to the decision to shoot ‘Tintin’ in motion capture. This sequence could not have been made in live action. It’s also capped off by a very funny joke that highlights the evident fun Spielberg is having bringing this character to the big screen.
The other astonishing action scene is the flashback to Sir Francis Haddock, as he is boarded by the fearsome pirate Red Rackham. As the crew of both ships swash and buckle, the two ships become intertwined and rock back and forth, creating a fury of movement and incredible visuals. To reiterate, this film features some of the best action in a long time, and it’s greatest achievement is that the geography of the action is always clear to the audience. This is a bit of a pet hate of mine as I always complain about films like Transformers 3’s film in a blender editing style. To Michael Bay and his shaky cam, rapid-fire editing minions; this is how to film an action scene.
Motion capture animation is a touchy subject. I’ve never had a problem with it, and have had a lot of fun with Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Beowulf’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the past. Some people do, and have issues with the so called dead-eyes and the uncanny valley look of the process, which they find off-putting. First and foremost, if you’re one of these people, I highly doubt this film will make a convert of you. But it may place a niggling doubt in your mind. The look of the film does take a few minutes to get used to, with its highly stylised human characters looking incredibly lifelike. But that is handled by the playfully brilliant opening scene, which introduces us to the computer generated recreations of Hergé’s beloved characters. The opening scene is perfectly executed for two reasons. It allows you to adapt to the style of the film, and the impressive, slightly otherworldly animation style. And it also gives loving reference to the source material. It opens with a cameo from Hergé himself (well, a recreation) as a street artist drawing profile caricatures in the original comic’s line drawn style. It’s a clever nod of acknowledgement to the materials origins, and also serves to win over knowledgeable fans.
Motion capture performances are difficult to judge, so I’ll just say that all the performances work. Daniel Craig delivers a snaky performance as the villain Sakharine, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost fall down and bump into things entertainingly as Thomson and Thompson. Snowy has the personality he has in the books, with him both causing trouble and coming to the rescue. Jamie Bell is suitably heroic as Tintin, and as in the books, the character is mostly a placeholder for young minds to project themselves onto. With no backstory, family or attachments other than his dog (and no actual job it seems, despite him being a reporter), the character is at first glance underdeveloped. But that is as it should be. We put ourselves in his shoes, and get caught up in the craziness around him. Which is where Captain Haddock comes in. Once again the stand out performance is motion capture expert Andy Serkis. Following on from his memorable performance as Caesar in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, Serkis has once again proven himself to be the master of the process. The film rattles along in an entertaining fashion, but when Captain Haddock is introduced about a half hour in, it takes off. At the speed of light. As in the books, Haddock is a drunkard. A blustering, swearing (“Blue blistering barnacles!”), emotional drunkard. He injects a startling amount of personality into the film and serves as the perfect comedy foil for the straight man Tintin.
Given the speed in which the film moves, a lot of exposition is done on the move. As in the comic books, the characters are portrayed in broad strokes. Haddock in particular is a drunkard who can’t live up to the legend of his family name. Tintin embodies the characteristics of an every man. As we read the books, and now watch the film, we project ourselves onto him as he boldly stands up against the bad guys and fights for good. It’s incredibly basic characterisation, but it’s as Hergé wrote them and they work.
Despite amping up the pace with non-stop action scenes, Spielberg has indeed remained true to the spirit of Hergé’s beloved creation. It’s a lot of fun. ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’ marks a tremendous return to form for Spielberg, and is easily one of the best films of 2011. Hergé was right.