Created in 1929 by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, Tintin is an internationally beloved literary character in virtually every part of the world except America. Enter Steven Spielberg (back in the director’s chair for the first time since 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Peter Jackson, who’ve collaborated to give Hergé’s creation new life in a glossy, mainstream Hollywood extravaganza hoping to appeal to both newcomers (Americans included) and established fans. The result is difficult to dislike, with the pair of filmmaking heavyweights using phenomenal state-of-the-art motion capture technology to vividly bring to life this world of danger, adventure and sleuthing.
An intrepid journalist who enjoys investigating mysteries, Tintin (Bell) finds himself inadvertently thrust into a perilous adventure when he purchases an ornate model of a 17th Century pirate ship known as “The Unicorn”. To Tintin’s puzzlement, the item becomes hotly pursued by other interested buyers, and is stolen when his flat is subsequently ransacked. With help from his loyal dog Snowy, Tintin starts looking into the ship’s significance, and finds that his model held one of three scrolls which could help lead to the Unicorn’s hidden treasure. The owner of the second scroll, the sinister Ivan Sakharine (Craig), begins resorting to violence and kidnapping to get all three scrolls, sweeping Tintin along on a sea voyage to the Moroccan city of Bagghar where the final scroll allegedly lurks. Along the way, Tintin teams up with Captain Haddock (Serkis), the final descendant of the Unicorn’s original captain.
Tagged with the subtitle The Secret of the Unicorn, the film is based on three of Hergé’s comics and was written by a trio of superlative British writers: Steven Moffat (Coupling, BBC’s Sherlock, Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). It’s one hell of a dream team, and their energetic screenplay does not disappoint. It’s full of fun character interactions and sly jokes, which have been translated to the screen with Indiana Jones-style zest by Spielberg. However, while there are a number of good laughs, a few moments of slapstick do feel overly cheap. More pertinently, Tintin remains an enigma throughout the film. He gets involved in so much action and danger, yet we’re never permitted the chance to genuinely get to know him. Most of the dialogue is plot-related, as the picture refuses to slows its pace to let the Tintin grow as a three-dimensional human being. It’s odd that he’s such an empty cipher considering that Tintin’s instantly-endearing dog Snowy is effectively developed just through his mannerisms.
The Adventures of Tintin marks Steven Spielberg’s first directorial foray into both animation and mo-cap, and it’s clear that the veteran filmmaker was right at home handling the action-adventure elements (it’s obvious why Raiders of the Lost Ark was compared to Tintin). Spielberg was effortlessly able to transfer the energy, strong pacing, engaging mise-en-scène and artistic framing of his habitual live-action output to this new medium with added fluidity. It’s also clear that Spielberg embraced the freedom to achieve what would be impossible when working in live-action. The Adventures of Tintin contains several amazing tracking shots (the single-shot chase through Morocco is phenomenal) and creative transitions, making the most of animation’s boundless possibilities. However, at times Spielberg got too carried away, resulting in action scenes that are too silly and Hollywood-ised. This is vehemently a cartoon, yes, but one can’t help but facepalm when a plane is fuelled by a Haddock belch. And set-pieces such as the climax are so over-the-top that you’re instantly taken out of the movie. Not to mention, a few narrative developments feel distinctly forced (the way Haddock “remembers” his family history doesn’t quite gel).
On a more positive note, the visuals absolutely take the breath away. The Adventures of Tintin grabs you from the very outset, beginning with a stylish Saul Bass-esque opening credits sequence featuring silhouetted characters acting out vignettes set to John Williams’ marvellous, toe-tapping jazz score. The picture’s lush CGI is not quite photo-real, but gorgeous isolated moments could be mistaken for live-action. Fortunately, too, the characters are not plagued with the creepy “dead-eye” syndrome of most mo-cap pictures – the likes of Tintin, Haddock and especially Snowy have a soul behind their artificially-rendered eyes. However, some body movements look a bittoo smooth. This issue only arises from time to time, though – for the most part, the motions look stunning.
One of the benefits of animation over live-action is the possibility of digital manipulation. Thus, all of the actors here look like their comic book counterparts (though the digital avatars are far more detailed than Hergé’s more cartoonish illustrations). Furthermore, the performances are solid right across the board. As the titular Tintin, Jamie Bell is ideal; he has a youthful naivety about him, and his line readings are suitably low-key. Alongside him, Andy Serkis is the star of the show as Captain Haddock, who has a drinking problem and a strong supply of one-liners. Also in the cast is the duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as incompetent detectives Thompson and Thomson (respectively). The two do not have an overly important part in the adventure, but it’s always a pleasure to see Pegg and Frost in a motion picture. Rounding out the main players is Daniel Craig, who positively disappears into the role of Ivan Sakharine with terrific results.
The Adventures of Tintin is not a flawless adaptation, and it’s somewhat disappointing that the picture isn’t better considering the perfect storm of talent which was assembled to bring it to fruition. Nevertheless, this is a very entertaining, well-made movie that’s well worth seeing. With its cliffhanger ending ensuring that a sequel is inevitable, further movies may rectify the flaws of this introductory flick.