Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn

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Review: The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn (PG) / Directed by: Steven Spielberg / Screenplay by: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish / Starring: (voices) Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Daniel Mays, Mackenzie Crook

Peter Jackson. Steven Spielberg. Steven Moffat. Edgar Wright. Joe Cornish. Can even all these talents, combining the daddies of modern blockbuster cinema (Jackson producing, Spielberg directing), the man who put the timey-wimey back into ‘Doctor Who’ (Moffat) and the two excitable young bucks of British cinema (Wright, Cornish) translate the very European charm of Belgian artist Herge’s ‘Tintin’ character into a new, 21st century, all-conquering animated franchise? The film is brilliant, let’s make no bones about it, but whether it’s got any realistic chance of attracting a big audience in 2011 is another matter entirely.

History lesson. Tintin, created by Belgian artist Georges Remi under the pen name ‘Herge’, first appeared as a picture strip in a Belgian newspaper’s children’s supplement in 1929 before spinning-off into its own series of comic strip albums and magazines on which Herge continued to work until his death in 1983. Tintin, fresh-faced young reporter of around 16 years of age, would regularly find himself involved in fast-paced swash-buckling adventures which took him all over the world - and occasionally into space. Tintin, accompanied by his snow-white fox terrier Snowy, the grumpy bearded Captain Haddock and the two bumbling and incompetent twin detectives Thompson and Thompson (whose name, incidentally, inspired The Thompson Twins, the electro-pop trio who had a string of UK chart hits in the mid-1980s, many of which are best forgotten) found themselves involved in all sorts of hi-jinks which straddled the genres, from fantasy, simple mysteries, political thrillers and eventually a little bit of science-fiction. In the UK the character became well-known in the 1960s and 1970s when the animated TV series made between 1958 and 1962 found itself a staple of summer holiday kid’s TV on BBC1 - “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!” - but the cartoons and, indeed, the character, have fallen out of favour somewhat over the last few years. In the States, certainly, Tintin probably enjoys a profile only slightly lower than Jedward’s. What, one wonders, will cinema audiences used to the whiz-bang of today’s ever-increasing crop of super-hero and light sci-fi adventures, make of this quaint, old-fashioned, resolutely 1930s-styled and defiantly Gallic-flavoured animation which is really unlike anything else out there at the moment? 

Tintin aficionados will adore ‘The Adventures of Tintin’. Spielberg’s movie is pretty much a love letter to the original strips - Tintin himself is introduced so charmingly you can’t but help lower all your defences and let the film just take you along for the ride - and it’s a relief to see that no attempt has been made to modernise the character, to drag him into the 21st century, equipping him with a mobile phone and a vocabulary of hip teenspeak. This is Tintin as he was, as he’s always been and as he always should be. He’s pretty much a young Indiana Jones and ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’, which borrows reverently from original stories ‘Crab With the Golden Claws’, ‘Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’, sees him pitched into adventure almost immediately as, at a flea market, he’s attracted to a detailed model of a triple-masted sailing vessel which he buys for “a pound.”  But others are greedily eyeing the model and before long Tintin (Bell) is sucked into a labyrinthine plot involving long-missing treasure linked to the ancestry of permanently-sozzled Captain Haddock (Serkis) and the sinister machinations of the “evil” Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who’s also keen to get his nefarious hands on the treasure.

So we’re off and running into a movie which throws us into set piece after set piece - bike chases, sea chases, air chases, desert chases - culminating in a frantic dockside climax and a resolution which tantalises with the prospect of a sequel yet to be greenlit. It’s breathlessly exciting stuff and surprisingly violent too. Ignoring any politically-correct lily-livered modern sensibilities, Spielberg piles on more fistfights than the last six Bond movies put together, a Tintin who’s handy with a gun and doesn’t much care who he fires it at, and, in Captain Haddock, a scene-stealer who dominates and owns the movie (because, let’s face it, Tintin himself is a bit of a faceless goody-goody). He's pretty much an alcoholic, more concerned with reaching for the nearest bottle of whiskey and drowning his sorrows than helping Tintin put together the pieces of the mystery. Refreshingly, too, there’s been no tacked on teenage love interest here; there’s only one woman in the entire cast, and she’s the legendary glass-shattering opera-singer Bianca Castafior - Tintin’s got no time for romance when there’s a mystery to solve and besides he’s got the trusty Snowy yapping at his heels and, more often than not, saving the day.

It’s taken Speilberg years to get Tintin onto the big screen, years spent waiting for computer animation technology - or more specifically the motion-capture facility - to develop to the point where he could do Tintin justice. ‘Mo-Cap’, as I’ve decided it should be called, has come on in leaps and bounds form those creepy dead-eyed Robert Zemeckis efforts like ‘Polar Express’; here the characters all look real and believable, flesh tones are spot on, facial movements naturalistic and there’s a staggering attention to detail - you can almost count the hairs on Haddock’s forearms - which genuinely does make you forget that this isn’t a live action movie at all. You may find yourself wondering why this actually isn’t a live action movie, such is the realism of the characterisation, but then some other extraordinary action sequence will explode across the scene and all will become crystal clear again. This is a movie that needs to be animated.

Spielberg also struck gold in the casting department. Jackson favourite and motion capture regular Andy Serkis crackles and fizzles as Haddock; he gets all the best lines and all the best comedy (apart from maybe Snowy) and Jamie Bell acquits himself well as the pretty colourless Tintin. Daniel Craig’s obviously having a ball voicing the bad guy and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are often indistinguishable as Thompson and Thompson who, as Herge fans will recall, have a tendency to just turn up in the thick of all the action just when you think you’ve seen the last of them.

The Adventures of Tintin’ is an absolute triumph both in the scale of its technological achievement and in its often-slavish adherence to the style and tone of Herge’s original stories. But it’s absolutely out there on its own, this is unlike any other animation you’ve seen in the last few years, it has a unique style and atmosphere and, in determinedly recreating the European strips, it just doesn’t feel like a Hollywood action film much less a Pixar or Blue Sky mainstream animation. And these are absolutely its strengths. But there’s a chance that Tintin has fallen too far down the pop culture food chain to resonate with the Harry Potter/Transformers generation and for a film as bold, brassy and downright enjoyable as ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ that’d be something of a crying shame. Whatever its Box office fate, it’s ultimately one of the must-see movies of 2011. 

Expected rating: 6 out of 10

Actual rating:

‘The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn’ is previewing across the UK until general release on 26th October.

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