Tintin in (live-)action!
If you happen to read this review a year or so after it was written – i.e. following the release of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn – then these opening paragraphs may need to look a little different. However, as of January 2011 the relationship between Tintin and the big screen has been a fairly quiet one, populated by modest works and curiosities, the majority of which are barely known to most filmgoers. The first came in 1947, eighteen years after the boy reporter made his debut in Le Petit Vingtième, the weekly youth supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle. By this point twelve books had been published, with a thirteenth adventure in progress having been temporarily halted owing to World War II. It was the ninth, The Crab With the Golden Claws, which provided the source for this same-titled work, a black and white Belgian film, barely an hour in length and animated using stop-motion techniques. A DVD is currently available in France courtesy of Fox Pathé, though it lacks English subtitles. (I would imagine, however, that non-French speakers would be able to easily follow the narrative with a copy of the original comic book to hand.)
More traditional cel animation methods were used for Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, an animated television series that ran from 1958 to 1962 (having been preceded by two semi-animated films that have settled into obscurity, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Broken Ear, made in 1956 and 1957 respectively) and led to three cinematic spin-offs. Admittedly the first, The Calculus Affair (1964), was no more than a compilation film, editing together episodes into a longer story much like many of those ‘big-screen’ outings for various animated TV series/toy lines produced during the eighties. But the two subsequent films, Prisoners of the Sun (1969) and Tintin and the Lake of Sharks (1972), were both made specifically for cinematic consumption, although the latter didn’t actually adapt one of Hergé’s existing stories. All three were handily compiled onto a triple-disc set by Anchor Bay in 2006, which Eamonn McCusker reviewed for the Digital Fix here.
The production company behind these films and the Adventures of Tintin television series, Belvision, also produced a documentary in 1975 entitled Moi, Tintin which featured contributions from Hergé himself and placed his work in the context of the times it was written. Another big screen documentary surfaced in 2003 with a very similar title, Tintin et moi, which took a similar tact – proclaiming that the Tintin books and strips contain “the history of the 20th century” – but was primarily centred around four days’ worth of interview material that Hergé gave in 1971. This more recent film was arguably the better of the two, serving as both an excellent primer for the newcomer and a source of much interest to the lifelong fan (especially given how candid those Hergé interviews were). As with the animated films it was released by Anchor Bay onto UK disc in 2006 (I reviewed it for the Digital Fix here), though some more prefer to track down the seemingly out of print disc from Madman that paired both docs.
Six animations (seven if you count the forthcoming motion-capture Spielberg feature) and two documentaries does leave a hole for some live-action versions, however, and happily France decided to plug this gap in the 1960s with Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece (1961) and Tintin and the Blue Oranges (1964). Arguably the most intriguing of all the films mentioned so far, they are now getting some deserved exposure thanks to this pair of DVD releases. Blu-ray discs are available in France for each, though both lack English subtitles meaning that non-French speaking ‘Tintinologists’ will have had little chance to see either unless they tracked down the poor quality Region 4 editions issued by Umbrella. Indeed, only The Mystery of the Golden Fleece has had the potential to cross UK viewers’ path thanks either to a one-off screening on the BBC during a Bank Holiday weekend in 1978 (as Tin Tin and the Golden Treasure) or at the National Film Theatre in March 2007, as part of their dedicated Tintin Night, alongside a handful of related British television pieces (excerpts from Hergé-themed documentaries; a snippet from a 2004 edition of Mastermind in which Tintin was the specialist subject).
This NFT screening also happened to be the inaugural Flipside event, a strand that has since developed into a series of Blu-ray and DVD releases from the BFI focussing on various neglected and oddball gems from British cinema’s past. Yet whilst these two Tintin films tick all the right boxes in terms of obscurity and retrospective charm (except for being produced in the UK of course), they are far closer to a pair of non-Flipside BFI discs released last September, namely the two Famous Five serials by the Children’s Film Foundation from the late fifties and early sixties. Indeed, the key thing to remember about The Mystery of the Golden Fleece and The Blue Oranges is that both are essentially aimed at children. Certainly, their appeal nowadays may lie primarily with cultists and fans of European exotica as well as lifelong ‘Tintinologists’, but ultimately they must be approached as kids’ entertainment.
A quick summary of the plotlines is more than enough to demonstrate this intent. The Mystery of the Golden Fleece begins with Captain Haddock learning of the death of an old friend and the resultant inheritance, which turns out to be the Golden Fleece of the title, a rusting old ship. Within minutes of Haddock, Tintin and Snowy arriving in Istanbul to collect the boat – and fulfil its final contracts – they are offered a huge sum of money for both it and its contents. The sum of 50,000 Turkish pounds naturally arouses their curiosity given the state of the Golden Fleece and so begins a series of intrigues, not to mention fist fights, car chases and a bit of globetrotting, as they set out to discovery the titular mystery. A similar chain of events is set off in The Blue Oranges, this time as the result of Professor Calculus’ plea to solve world hunger (by scientists being able to grow “oranges in the Sahara, potatoes in the North Pole”), the theft of the titular blue orange, which also happens to glow in the dark, and a trip to Spain.
In both cases the manner in which story progresses is somewhat rudimentary and no doubt even the younger audience members will be a step or two ahead of our intrepid leads. Neither film was a direct adaptation of one of Hergé’s stories and so each exists as a means of satisfying a set-piece quota, if you will. Thus Tintin will indulge in a bit of hand-to-hand combat or scale the wall of a castle or hotel and Captain Haddock will shout profusely or be continually thwarted in his attempts to imbibe a drink or two. The other famed characters also crop up for extended cameos (or to save the day), namely Professor Calculus and Thompson and Thomson. Interestingly there is no exposition when it comes to these figures – it is assumed fully that we will know exactly who they are and, moreover, eagerly await their appearance. Indeed, the Thom(p)son twins get straight down to slapstick business with barely an introduction.
Part of the quota also appears to be the need to film in as sun-kissed a location as possible. The Mystery of the Golden Fleece takes in Turkey and Greece, whilst The Blue Oranges concentrates its action in Spain. Combined with the general intrigue and action scenes it’s hard not to place the films amongst those international capers that were to occupy much of the sixties’ cinematic landscape. The travelogue-y nature (complete with aerial introductions to Istanbul and Valencia) isn’t too far removed from Jules Dassin’s Topkapi, say, or Don Sharp’s Our Man in Marrakesh. Perhaps the most suitable comparison would be Philippe de Broca’s L’Homme de Rio starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, especially as it serves as a kind of loose adaptation Hergé’s The Broken Ear and that De Broca was approached in the late fifties with the idea of adapting Tintin for the big screen. (Apparently Alain Resnais was also considered; a salivating prospect given his professed love for les bandes dessinées.)
It should be stated, however, that the location work is a massive positive for the films, placing them very much within the real world. In fact, there is an overall air of, if not downright realism then at least tangibility. Snowy behaves much as would expect any loyal dog to, the special effects are achieved either by the simplest of means or in-camera (as when Captain Haddock samples a particularly spicy soup and turns red simply by have a red bulb shone in his proximity) and Tintin himself, played by Jean-Pierre Talbot, does all of his own stunts. Incidentally, Talbot – who was spotted on an Ostend beach – is near perfect for the role. Not only does he resemble Hergé’s creation to a remarkable degree (only the distinctive flick of the hair was required) but he also has the right level of physicality. Hardly surprising given that he worked as a fitness instructor prior to being offered the role.
Yet Talbot was to be the only mainstay amongst the principal characters over the two films. Thus we have two Captain Haddocks, two Professor Calculus’ and four Thom(p)sons. Admittedly there is little to distinguish the various Thom(p)sons, although they do get a nice of bit of mirror image business in The Blue Oranges. Haddock, however, comes across far better in The Mystery of the Golden Fleece than he does in the subsequent film, whilst this situation is reversed for Calculus. The problem for Haddock in The Blue Oranges is that actor Jean Bouise simply looks a little too thin and is a little too young for the role even if he’s perfectly capable of the requisite gruff demeanour; despite the blatantly fake beard sported by Georges Wilson in The Mystery of the Golden Fleece he does a far truer portrayal. Calculus on the other hand has the benefit of being played by Félix Fernandez in The Blue Oranges, a regular of Luis Garcia Berlanga’s comedies of the fifties and sixties and therefore blessed with a good sense of comic timing and cartoon-ish portrayals. To be fair the Calculus of The Mystery of the Golden Fleece, played by Georges Loriot, has little to do other than bookend the film with some colourful inventions and so any comparisons were always going to be weighted against him.
With that said, any misgivings ultimately fade as both The Mystery of the Golden Fleece and The Blue Oranges prove themselves as no-nonsense cheerful entertainments. There are no dark edges or narrative complexities, simply engaging pieces of fun that deserve a look, even if it’s a slightly generous one. Of the two The Mystery of the Golden Fleece comes out on top thanks to brisker pace and tighter control over proceedings, though neither should be dismissed out of hand. As is becoming ever typical of the BFI, it’s great once more to discover something you were perhaps unaware of or at least had a minimal chance of seeing. Oh, and the first film also comes with a ridiculously catchy score that you’ll be humming for days.
Both The Mystery of the Golden Fleece and The Blue Oranges are released onto DVD only and coded for all regions. Original aspect ratios and soundtracks have been maintained, in each case 1.66:1 anamorphically enhanced and mono. The Mystery of the Golden Fleece also comes with an optional English dub track recorded in 1961 similarly presented in mono. For the most part, both look and sound really good given their age and scarcity. They were transferred to high definition from pre-print 35mm film elements and present little in the way of age and wear. Colours are also crisp and clean – a definite bonus given their strong use in both films (the ship’s chef in The Mystery of the Golden Fleece resembles a portly Seu Jorge from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou but opts for performing the theme tune on a harmonica as opposed to Bowie covers) – though arguably the image isn’t of optimal sharpness. With that said these discs do represent a definite improvement over the Umbrella releases from 2008 which suffered from cropped prints that were also in pretty poor shape. In terms of English-friendly releases the BFI ones are definitely the way to go. And, needless to say, the subtitles are optional. Note that both the dub and subtitles refer to the characters by their English names, thus Milou becomes Snowy, Tryphon Tournesol becomes Cuthbert Calculus and Dupont et Dupond becomes Thompson and Thomson.
As well as The Mystery of the Golden Fleece’s English dub track – which plays extremely well even if it does lumber Tintin with an (admittedly not too strong) American accent – we also find original French trailers for both films on their respective discs and the expected accompanying booklets. As is typical for the BFI here we find plenty of illustrations, full credits and notes on the presentations as well as some newly commissioned and, in this case, newly translated essays and notes. The booklet for the first film opens with a wonderfully nostalgic piece from Vic Pratt in which he recalls its only showing on British television back in 1978 when he was just seven years old. He also provides a potted history of Tintin over both booklets and there’s relevant extracts from Jean-Pierre Talbot’s memoirs in each too. Additionally we also find Simon Doyle introducing the various characters in The Mystery of the Golden Fleece’s booklet (just as the Famous Five films had in theirs), and Christopher Owens giving an overview of Tintin on the big screen in The Blue Oranges’ which also features a critique of the film by children’s author-illustrator John Fardell. A wide-ranging selection, each of which deserves its inclusion.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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