The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

When it’s on: Thursday, 1 January (4.25 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

As a child I was always more into Asterix than Tintin, the little bequiffed Belgian journalist as conceived by Hergé in 1929. The adventures of the Roman-smiting Gaul just wormed its way into my affections easier, perhaps I think in hindsight because of the creative names of his tribesmen – you’d trust a herbalist called Getafix, wouldn’t you? That said, all I wanted to do back then was draw my own cartoon strips, and the Tintin books were the ideal inspiration, with their clean lines, bright colours and panels that individually seemed to contain so many things happening at once. The dream ended as my painstaking efforts to produce some new comic book hero made me realise I could appreciate the form but not produce anything close to it, but my pleasure for the stories has lingered, and my wife is a massive Tintin fan. Several years ago, we sat through much of the animated series, enjoying the affection for the source material whilst missing Tintin in his natural book form. Conveying the character’s relentless sense of movement was difficult to do, but Hergé captured it magnificently.

French reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 compared Indiana Jones’s fast moving antics to those of Tintin, and it was through reading these that Spielberg first came across Hergé’s books and acquired the adaptation rights in short order. Then he sat on the project for twenty years, convinced it was nigh on impossible to do the character and books any justice via a live action movie. The particular problem was Snowy, Tintin’s dog, virtually impossible to replicate with a trained animal but accessible more and more thanks to advances in animation. Ultimately, he went to Weta Workshop in New Zealand, famous for its work on the Lord of the Rings films, and from there to the series’ director and creative force, Peter Jackson. After showing Spielberg what was possible by sending him a film of Jackson dressed up as Captain Haddock, performing alongside a fully animated Snowy, the pair decided to collaborate and develop Tintin using motion capture technology. The planned movie was conceived as a number of features, with Spielberg and Jackson alternating directorial roles, and the first of these became The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

As a director of many years and hits at the box office, with critical acclaim to match, helming an animated film must have been something of an unusual ‘first’ for Spielberg. Fortunately, it mainly works. Not content to simply make a cartoon, Tintin features many scenes where the animated form creates images that would otherwise be almost impossible, such as Haddock’s memories of his past-life as Sir Francis transforming the Saharan sandscape into the rolling ocean, his ship the Unicorn bobbing up and down the dunes/waves. It also serves the action sequences very well, injecting an urgency to moments that might have been limited by the restrictions of what would be possible in a live action film. The rendering is smooth and realistic; the characters all look great, those ‘dead eyed’ cartoon people from the earlier likes of The Polar Express now brought vividly to life whilst retaining enough artistic commonality with their Hergé originals to become every inch the books exploding into life.

Added to that, it’s a lot of fun. From the moment Tintin happens to purchase a model boat, the plot shifts happily from one fast-paced caper to the next, very rarely letting up and allowing itself to be dictated by the action rather than lengthy exposition from characters in conversation. It seems clear Tintin was made as a labour of love. Jackson was a fan from childhood, Spielberg from the moment his interest was piqued by those Indiana Jones reviews, and the results are a love letter to Hergé, the spirit of the books retained. I had no idea that Daniel Craig was playing Sakharine/Red Rackham until the credits mentioned it, so buried is he within the performance, but Jamie Bell makes for a fine Tintin, whilst frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis is in excellent form as a perpetually sozzled Haddock. The Thompson Twins are the comic relief, supplied by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The film’s writers, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish, ensure a heavyweight combination of talent loaded into the screenplay.

And yet, and yet in the end, it’s the animation that emerges as the film’s main weakness. One of the great charms of Raiders of the Lost Ark was that it all took place within a working world, a fully realised 1930s backdrop of Nazi villains and Indiana Jones suffering for his cause. That sweat on Harrison Ford’s face as he faced off with a king cobra – that was real sweat. The blood he let as a consequence of being pummelled during the fight to wrest the Ark from the Germans looked well earned. The grains of the desert dusted over everything – all real. In cinematic terms, if Tintin resembles anything then it’s those old Jones adventures, a combination of great acting, writing, direction and stuntcraft, with special effects dialled down and everything grounded in grimy authenticity. As much fun as it is, Tintin never quite captures this because it’s a cartoon. What you’re watching has been produced by a computer, actors doing everything they can to make it come to life but ultimately playing in front of green screens with the detail filled in by skilled engineers later.

There’s no escaping that reality, or lack thereof, and the result is a joyful confection from men who have obvious affection for the stories and give their all to it, but a confection all the same.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn: ***