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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn Review

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by Simon Crust Mar 30, 2012

    The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn Review

    “Hergé's Adventures of Tintin”

    That’s pretty much all I can remember of the short lived animated TV show I used to watch as a boy.  That and the white dog.  I also have a vague recollection of reading one or two of the books, borrowed from a friend having never owned them myself, which at least enables me to know who the main characters are and what they look like, even if the actual stories elude me.  But what I do remember is being distinctly underwhelmed by it all.  Perhaps it was because the main protagonist was a boy, or the fact that he had no special powers unlike all the other superheroes in comics, or that it was a French translation, or just that young boys dislike for no apparent reason – I can’t put my finger on it, because I simply don’t remember, but that distaste is still with me, all these years later, so it was with some trepidation that I spun tonight’s feature disc.  Would those same prejudices come out or would master filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson be able to transport me into this unique world.  A world where a young reporter and his faithful dog attack action and adventure full on with nothing but quick wit, unwavering courage and an assortment of unlikely companions who both help and hinder.  Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s feature presentation is The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

    The film opens up to a market place in Tintin’s home European town, complete with cobbled roads, architecture, street vendors and artists.  One of these artists is drawing a caricature of our titular hero and, in a nod to the original writer, not only does he have a striking resemblance to Hergé, but his painting depicts exactly how Tintin appears in the comic novels.  From here, Tintin spies a model ship, recognising its configuration he rushes over, barters with the vendor and procures it; but no sooner has he done so when a mysterious man warns him off, and then another comes up and tries to purchase it from him for any amount of money.  Suspecting something fishy going on, and perhaps the inkling of a story (he is a journalist after all) Tintin refuses and takes the model ship, called the Unicorn, home.  This simple action is the catalyst for all that happens next.  Everything you need to know about Tintin is demonstrated in these few opening scenes; he is knowledgeable with a keen and inquisitive mind, he is also strong willed and has the utmost integrity and, perhaps crucially, he has a knack for finding adventure or, more precisely, adventure has a knack for finding him.  His investigation leads him to discover what the model ship represents, who built it and why it is being sought.  And when a dead body falls at his door in a hail of bullets, the cryptic dead man’s message further deepens the mystery, and Tintin is no stranger to that, so he takes it upon himself to discover exactly what is going on.

    His investigations lead him to Captain Haddock, a drunken sea captain, who may just hold all the answers.  Haddock is a fan favourite and a staple of the books.  He is loud, brash and clumsy, but his heart is right and behind the sizzled eyes there lies a keen intelligence – much like Bender from Futurama, he too is fuelled by alcohol, giving him strength, recall, bravado and cunning.  His relationship with Tintin is one of mutual respect and utter friendship; this being an ‘introduction’ story of sorts lays the foundation of that friendship and once together the two make for a formidable team.  It is Haddock’s grandfather that built the model ships and hid the secret in the first place and it is tracing his family history that uncovers the truth behind the mystery.  The pair, once together, embark on a globetrotting quest that takes them to North Africa before they have to head home.  Helped or, at times, hindered by two bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson are other fan favourites; wrongly thought of as twins (note the difference is spelling of their names) these two are nearly identical and act far more as the comic relief than Haddock, despite some of his outrageous behaviour.  However, their tenacity is undisputed, and the fact that they always seem to get their man regardless of how inept their deductive processes and general bickering is, as well as turning up at just the right time to help with the case at hand mean that their presence is always a welcome one.

    The actors chosen to play these colourful characters have been well thought out and due to the performance capture filming process their voices match the on screen personas very well.  Jamie Bell portrays the titular character, I’ve never been particularly enamoured with the man since his breakthrough role in Billy Elliot, something about those ears maybe, anyway here, hidden behind the CG creation he does an extremely good job, the voice ‘matches’ the character and he imbues the voice with enough dedication and conviction to make it work.  Performance capture stalwart and ‘go to guy’ due to his work as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar, Andy Serkis is thought of as the guru for the art – he is also a terrific actor in his own right – and he gives voice to Captain Haddock.  It was decided to give Haddock a Scottish accent, I thought it sounded pretty authentic, indeed the gravelly tones used reminded me of Gerard Butler, and, like Bell’s, the voice fits the character very well (I’m sure it’s nothing to do with his drunken behaviour either).  The bungling Thompson’s needed to have voices that had a great deal of chemistry, as they look so similar and behave like brothers (twins!) that when they bicker it had to have strong meaning behind the words.  The choice of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was an inspired one – these two best of friends bicker in real life and they bring that funny, charming and harmless arguing to their creations making these voices fit best of all.

    But what of our antagonist?  As villains go, Sakharine, walks that fine line between pantomime and true darkness; and it’s exactly what the part demands.  When we first meet him, he is all sweetness and light, proffering monies for the model he so desires, it is only when our backs are turned that we see that sinister snarl.  His later threatening behaviour towards Tintin furthers our suspicion but it is his gunning down of the agent on Tintin’s door step that shows us just how unhinged he really is.  As with all the best villains we learn his motives are not quite as black and white as you might expect, but rightly so err on the dark side, and, to keep the spirit of adventure high, his villainous behaviour never descends into outright horror.   Voiced by James Bond himself, Daniel Craig balances the right amount of boo-hissability and downright menace to have you cheering for the goodies all the way.

    Directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson know a thing or two about telling a good story – both have a well proven record.  And together they share a great love of the original character.  In order to bring their vision to the screen and keep it stylistically the same as Hergé's original designs, a live action feature using prosthetics was ruled out and the relatively new method of performance capture was adopted.  This gave the artistic freedom to design the characters and locations without the restrictions given by ‘real life’.  However, it was deemed essential to have it as close to real life as is possible, so while the characters do indeed look like three dimensional representations of Hergé's designs, they also look like they could exist, plus the world they inhabit appears, to all intents and purposes, real.  Performance capture has been used to make films in the past - Robert Zemeckis’ CG animation make extensive use of it (A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express etc.) – but where in his films the CG characters represent real life 'people'; the end result looks far too ghoulish.  Here, Spielberg and Jackson, by staying true to Hergé's designs, have characters that are free of that ghoulish bent, yet they inhabit an ostensibly real world, and it works incredibly well.  Using this technique allows for outrageous camera movements and improbable stunts to look perfectly natural within the confines of the film.  As such it is one of the best uses of performance capture to create an entire film I’ve ever come across.  And Jackson’s Weta workshop are to be congratulated on the work they have put in to making this film look quite so spectacular.  Indeed the adventure elements of the film are arguably the driving force beyond that of the story narrative, but unlike a pure ‘style over substance’ exercise, the balancing act of the characters against the action, for the most part works.  This is a testament to Hergé's original writing, as Steven Moffat, and later Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish made extensive use of the pacing beats employed by the Belgian writer.  The only problem, for me at least, is the sheer amount of action set pieces, something that I think pushes the film slightly too far into ‘too much too soon’.  Once Tintin and Haddock escape from the ship, there is a nonstop deluge of action set piece after action set piece, with no time to draw breath.  However, I think I am clearly in the minority here as the movie has had heaps of praise.  Indeed even before its huge box office takings sequels were being discussed by Spielberg and Jackson, alternating the director’s chair.  I’d be very interested in Jackson’s take; would it go the strong story narrative of Lord of the Rings, or the loving opus of King Kong.  Time will tell.

    So The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a high paced action adventure yarn, with thrilling set pieces (even if I feel they go on too long) linked by a good story narrative.  Unfortunately I think Spielberg was banking on the fact that everyone knows the characters and therefore didn’t invest them with any heart; they may have physical dimensionality but there's little to no depth or development, and consequently no involvement. Yes, the adventures are grand, but you're seldom taken along for the ride, other than visually. Even the flimsiest of films can still make for an enthralling experience (Tron: Legacy) but they require characters that you're prepared to follow and go on the ride with. Tintin has characters you know and should love, but unfortunately don't.  And so I am still with that same apathy that so affected me as a child when I read the stories; in fact I found the film rather boring.  And that is a shame as it tries so hard to involve.  So I’ll score it as I see it, but those that know and love the character can (and will) likely score it a couple of points higher.