The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Oh yes, I certainly remember Tintin. I remember a good many hours spent plonked down on the floor of an MPH or Times bookstore, reading the comics from cover to cover. Between this and borrowing my friends' issues (I never owned any, but now that I have plenty of disposable income and the freedom to spend it on the trappings of my childhood, I should really consider getting 'em all), I pretty much covered all twenty-three of them (except the unfinished twenty-fourth). They were wonderful comics, a delightful blend of action, adventure, comedy, and a gorgeously romanticized view of the mid-20th century. So now there's a movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, and written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish - all highly prestigious names, not to mention highly reliable at delivering quality filmic entertainment. Naturally, the first question would be: is it a faithful adaptation?
The answer is yes. But fidelity to the source material isn't the biggest issue here.
When world-famous reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a beautiful model of a 17th-century sailing ship - the Unicorn - he finds himself caught up in the ancient mystery of the actual Unicorn and its captain, Sir Francis Haddock. A man named Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is willing to commit murder to uncover that mystery, and Tintin's quest to beat him to it will lead him on a continent-spanning adventure - accompanied, as always, by his faithful dog Snowy. Along for the ride is the alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), descendant of the Unicorn's original captain and an important key to the mystery; also occasionally turning up to lend a not-very-helpful hand are the dimwitted Scotland Yard detectives Thomson (Nick Frost) and Thompson (Simon Pegg).
Okay, confession time: it's actually been years since I opened the covers of a Tintin comic. I had to check the movie's Wikipedia entry to learn that the storyline is cobbled together from three of the comics: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure. Which is a logical choice, seeing as it combines Tintin's and Captain Haddock's first meeting with the adventure in which Haddock's background features most prominently. And in knitting together these three issues into a seamless movie plot, Moffat, Wright and Cornish earn their paychecks. As do the army of CGI animators who created the gorgeously detailed locations, and Spielberg for both the fun action scenes and the wholesome, old-fashioned adventure tonality in which they inhabit. It's a fun movie, more fun than anything Spielberg has made in years - and that includes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
But it's in pseudo-realistic motion-capture 3D animation. And my dislike for this particular animation style has not abated; in fact, I'm dismayed it picked up another two advocates in Spielberg and Peter Jackson. I've already discussed how it always makes characters look dead-eyed and inexpressive, and that problem is present here - in its titular protagonist, no less. Look at the publicity stills - that dull, slack-jawed look is pretty much permanently affixed to his face. It could be argued that the original comic Tintin is a deliberately blank slate as well, with no distinct personality nor backstory, but Hergé still knew how to draw him with expressions. Hergé's Tintin was never dull, which is what Spielberg's Tintin is. And this isn't an uncanny valley problem, which this movie quite successfully avoids; Haddock and Thomson and Thompson are enjoyably expressive, largely because their features are deliberately cartoonish. This Tintin is dull by design.
This exacerbates another problem when the movie gets to its action scenes. There's a midsection chase scene through a Moroccan city that's superbly well-choreographed, employing a camera that swoops through a single tracking shot in ways that would be impossible in live-action (and must've had Spielberg creaming in his pants). It's thrillingly good fun, and nicely brings Hergé's own wildly slapstick action scenes into the cinematic medium. But there's one part - which can be seen in the trailer - in which Tintin rides a motorcycle off a ledge, it breaks into pieces, leaving him holding the handlebars, which he uses to zipline down a telephone cable in pursuit of a hawk that has stolen the Macguffin. What is he thinking and feeling in this scene? Is he a fearless daredevil who thinks nothing of performing such acrobatic feats? Or is he in absolute terror at the death-brushing predicament he got himself into, as any normal person would be? We don't know. Because we never see his face in this scene.
Compare that to a similarly wild action scene in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, in which the hero free-runs through the flying debris of a tornado, then gives us a moment to show his emotional reaction at, well, having survived a free-run through a tornado. This is important, guys. Knowing what's going through our hero's mind is crucial in the immersive experience of a film, especially so in an action scene. Because otherwise, it's no more than a shallowly spectacular circus act by performers whom we don't know and have no emotional investment in. What's sad is that Spielberg used to know this. That's how he directed the Indiana Jones movies, with a game collaborator in Harrison Ford; his "oh shit oh shit I don't know if this is gonna work" look, his "aaaa nooo we're gonna diiiiee" look, his "enough enough I give up just kill me please" look, and his "okay that is it I have had it this ends right now" look are exactly what made Indy the greatest action hero of all time. And now, Spielberg gives us an action hero who performs feats Indy could never have dreamed of, yet never looks anything more than mildly flustered.
Comparing it to a more cartoony 3D-animated film also raises another problem with this movie, and with the whole pseudo-realistic style as a whole. Namely, is it realistic or not? Are we meant to be seeing a representation of live-action reality, or the deliberately exaggerated slapstick of a cartoon? Insanely over-the-top action sequences like the Morocco chase are fine if it's the latter, but in the former are just unbelievable and phony. This confusion somewhat marred my enjoyment of this and its other action scenes, as thrilling and as well-staged as they are. Even its non-action scenes; some of its jokes and gags, while taken directly from the comics, come off as cheesy and kiddish. Again, they'd be funny if it were made clear we're watching a cartoon (or at least, one in which the main character looked as much like a cartoon as everyone else in the movie), but therein lies the inherent problem of the pseudo-realistic motion-capture animation genre: it's this nebulous, confusing, neither-one-nor-the-other middle between live-action and animation, between realism and heightened realism.
Yeah, I do this a lot - writing ostensibly favourable reviews that spend more pixels on criticising the movie than praising it. And then I wrap it up with a concluding paragraph that says, okay, seriously you guys, it's still a good movie. It's good old-fashioned all-ages fun, and a fair and loving tribute to Hergé's comic creation. But it could've been a lot more - not just a truly brilliant film adaptation of the unequivocally brilliant comics, but a worthy reprise of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to which Spielberg is clearly paying self-homage. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sorely disappointed me and made me suspect he's losing his touch, but The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn confirmed it; he's forgotten that one simple thing that made his older movies so genuinely thrilling, instead of superficially so. Oh well. Maybe the sequel - which Peter Jackson is directing - will be better.
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