The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn Review
If there were any doubts about whether Steven Spielberg would remain faithful to the spirit of the original Tintin books (expecting them to be faithful to the actual drawn line would be unrealistic in the present day), those concerns are addressed in the very first scene of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Opening up in a market, as it does in the original story, the first person we see is Georges Remi, the man whose initials when turned around and pronounced in French is Hergé, the creator of the Tintin books, seen here working as a street artist doing a portrait of his most famous creation in the simple clear-line style that surely everyone is familiar with. It’s a lovely touch that bodes well for what follows, and what follows happily lives up to the very high expectations that the long gestation to the making of the film – Spielberg purchasing the rights back in 1984 – has built-up over the years.
Personally speaking, while I didn’t doubt the evident enthusiasm Spielberg clearly holds for Hergé’s creation and his determination to eventually bring Tintin to the screen, I was less keen to see the intrepid globe-trotting reporter turned into a rapid-fire action, smart quipping adventurer in the Indiana Jones style, even if the roots of Spielberg’s creation can be traced back indirectly to the Tintin books. Those particular concerns were put safely aside, for the time being at least (some slight reservations remained based on the early trailers), by the team of writers that the director had pulled together for the script. In all honesty, I couldn’t imagine a better team, more perfectly in touch with this kind of childhood-favourite material and capable of updating it respectfully and creatively but also with a sense of fun, than Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish, and Edgar Wright.
And that certainly proves to be the case. The start of the film follows the opening scenes of the original ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ book fairly closely (if it looks considerably more dynamic in 3-D CG animation than the original), with Tintin discovering a replica model of an 18th century sailing ship, the Unicorn, the ship of the famous Sir Francis Haddock, only to find that there are suddenly a number of somewhat sinister-looking parties also interested in the model and very keen to pay a lot of money for something that Tintin has picked up for £1 from a market stall. A coded message contained on a scroll that falls from the broken mast of the model ship leads Tintin on a dangerous globe-spanning investigation to work out the secret of the Unicorn, and the possible whereabouts of a great treasure. To do that however, he will need to find two other models of the Unicorn, each containing the remaining parts of the message, and he will also need the help of the only surviving member of the Haddock line. With the Captain a hopeless alcoholic locked up on board his own ship by his mutinous crew, Tintin’s prospects don’t look too good.
What’s clever about the scripting of this film version of ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ is that it doesn’t just simply combine it with ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ to make a complete story – since most of what occurs in the sequel book involves a great deal of slapstick and a major wild goose chase – but rather it almost completely abandons the undersea adventures of the second half and, consequently, the introduction of Professor Calculus into the series. In its place the writers seamlessly insert the first encounter between Tintin and Captain Haddock, which occurs (after quite a number of exotic solo Tintin adventures) in ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’. In fact, I think there may be more of ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ than there is ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. The validity of this approach is that it’s a good way to introduce the relationship between Tintin and Haddock (‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ is otherwise not the best Tintin adventure as an introduction to the series) here in the first Spielberg Tintin movie.
It makes sense structurally then, but more importantly, and quite surprisingly, the writing and the handling of Haddock’s character as he develops over the course of the story is remarkably sensitive, introducing and then humanising a figure who it would be much easier to allow to remain a caricature with a penchant for whisky and inventive alliterative insults (“Billions of blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon!”). A great deal of the credit for this has to go also to Andy Serkis (the king of Performance Capture), who inhabits Haddock brilliantly and, moreover, as a Scot. It’s a nice touch and it works well, allowing the Captain to add “Sassenachs!” to his repertoire of insults. Tintin on the other hand has always been something of a blank slate and it’s difficult to define his personality beyond tenacious investigator with a high tolerance threshold for dealing with idiots – like the Thompsons – and hearing-impaired, dotty scientists, so any attempt at deeper characterisation or motivation is going to be troublesome. Somehow – even though he takes on much more recognisably human features in Performance Capture – Jamie Bell’s characterisation of youthful never-say-die enthusiasm comes across well.
The remainder of the characterisation is adequate-to-good with the right balance between realism and caricature which should at least ensure that it doesn’t ruffle any feathers with Tintin fans. Daniel Craig’s mannerisms come through clearly on the face of Sakharine, and he asserts a strong charismatic presence as the arch-villain of the piece. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, despite seeming like an ideal piece of casting for the Thompsons, unfortunately aren’t given much room to elaborate their usual double-act routine, but the film’s treatment of the hapless detective duo is good nonetheless, retaining the best elements of their pickpocket investigation – with Toby Jones excellent as the kleptomaniac Mr Silk – and their habit of turning up in foreign lands wearing incompetent disguises. Personally, one of my favourite moments in the film came with the unexpected introduction of the diva Bianca Castafiore, the Milanese Nightingale looking slightly less matronly than in the books, but gaining considerably from you actually being able to hear a voice that could shatter glass. Haddock’s near-allergic reaction to her singing is absolutely priceless.
One crucial aspect that is most likely to be make or break and which I’ve only mentioned in passing so far, is the Weta Studios 3-D CG animation using Performance Capture. So far, with a few notable exceptions that make good partial use of the technology (few other than Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes come to mind), the use of the techniques over the course of a whole film would not so long ago have been prohibitively expensive and the results less than ideal. Thankfully The Secret of the Unicorn impressively demonstrates – not least in the reanimation of the late Hergé himself – that the process pioneered by Peter Jackson and the Weta team is now close to state of the art.
The decision to wait until the technology was at a sufficiently advanced stage, and the choice to employ it in the making of the long-awaited Spielberg Tintin movie has, it seems, been completely vindicated by the results. There is at times a sense that the technology has given the director too much leeway to play with his new toys and he does get a little carried away in places – the Sir Francis Haddock sequence with the gunpowder is superbly choreographed in an Indiana Jones way, but the exploits with the rocket launcher in an Arabian coastal town perhaps take things a little too far into mindless mayhem. As a longtime Tintin fan, from the time that I learned to read right through to the present-day, rereading the books frequently over a 40 year period and finding that they still stand up as some of the best work in the comic art medium, I can’t speak for how The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn will be greeted by young children, the uninitiated or the yet-to-be-converted, but it made at least one older fan very happy indeed.