The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

The day it was announced that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson would make a motion-captured, computer-animated blockbuster out of Herge’s venerable Tintin, a film journalist of my acquaintance said his first reaction was to check the calendar and see if it was April 1st. Come off it – Tintin? A Belgian comic strip with near-zero recognition in the U.S. market; whose creator expired a quarter-century ago; whose world is entirely – well, nearly – bereft of sorcery, spaceships or superheroes (and certainly none figure in the strips which Spielberg has chosen to adapt); and a strip with a frankly chequered history, edged with colonialism and wartime collaboration.

A lot of reviews of Tintin have shied away from this last point, as if afraid that it could kill the perilous project at the start. But still, this is a film adapted from two 1940s strips (The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn) which were first published in a Nazi-controlled Belgian newspaper (Le Soir). As if that wasn’t enough, the film has stirred media interest in the endless row over Herge’s earlier Tintin in the Congo, in which Africans call the tufty-haired reporter, “Big Juju man.” All this is irrelevant to the new film’s worth, but if anyone wants to hurt it commercially in markets where people don’t know the hero from Adam…

I say this as a casual Tintin fan; someone sceptical of the higher literary claims made for the strip, but who loves Herge’s ligne clair style (in which pictures are defined by strong, readable outlines) and who is fascinated by Tintin’s long and bumpy history, well told in a DVD documentary, Tintin et Moi. Given the claims in the film’s pre-publicity, I confess I wondered if the technology had made a real conceptual breakthrough; perhaps something that applied mocap to ligne clair and inhabited Herge’s art in a new and stunning way. (Of course, there have been a great many traditionally-drawn Tintin cartoons, which superficially capture the look of the strips, but they inevitably lose their elegance as soon as they start filling the spaces between Herge’s comic panels.) Actually, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (out now) is what we might have expected: The Polar Express 2.0.

Judging by the reaction, that’s enough to kill Tintin for many people. I confess, though, that I never had so much trouble with Polar Express; I was put off more by its rubbish songs than its famous dead eyes. (Paradoxically, the characters’ fakeness registers far less in the king-size 3D version of Polar Express, which is still shown at IMAX cinemas each Christmas.) In Tintin’s case, I found the mocap medium perfectly acceptable, and the source of the film’s most elegant joke. A Herge lookalike artist paints Tintin in the classical manner, before we see the face of Spielberg’s palatable simulacrum. Of course, you may object this is wilfully wasted high-tech; why not just have the characters played by suitable-looking actors? That’s as dull, though, as saying that the Herge strips would have been equally good as Look-in style photo-strips (assuming you could get a photographer with a Spielbergian budget, covering pirate battles and desert excursions). In both comics and CGI, the storytelling is founded on the artificiality of the medium, which stretches our sense of humour, significance, and possibility.

But it also has limits, and Tintin runs against them often, thanks to Spielberg’s tendency to treat the material as Indiana Jones 5. Animated action is routinely spectacular, but it’s far harder to conjure real thrills without stunts involving real people, like Terry Leonard going under the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even in The Incredibles, a superb animated film, the action scenes are often among the less engaging moments, and they work as well as they do mainly because of our affection for the characters. (The Incredibles director Brad Bird’s next film is the upcoming fourth Mission Impossible. Wonder how that will work out.)

I found Tintin’s Indy pastiches distancing, and slightly dull, in much the same way as the CG-slathered pseudo-action in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That especially applies to Tintin’s pirate battle with apparently weightless sailing ships, and its over-egged, over-fancy Moroccan crescendo with runaway tanks and bursting dams. There are moments in Herge’s original strips which could have translated better to mocap; Captain Haddock going bug-eyed berserk and rushing a party of desert snipers, or the imprisoned Tintin struggling to lift a heavy wooden beam and use it as a battering ram. Both moments get alluded to in the film, but only glancingly.

Tintin himself (performed in mocap by Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot) is the hardest character to sell to a modern audience. The film makes him overtly stagey, monologuing to himself or his fox terrier, or staring into close-up with a slightly psychotic intensity. Perhaps Spielberg was inspired by the hyper-stylised approach of Sin City. Of course, the main thing Tintin’s missing is a female interest, though there’s a walk-on from opera-singer Bianca Castafiore (a regular in the Tintin comics, though not in Crab or Unicorn). Co-producer Peter Jackson must be eyeing Tintin’s fortunes, given his Hobbit adaptation looks to be almost as female-light as Tolkien’s book. A girlfriend for Tintin would have horrified fans and removed the point of adapting the strip. But how well can such exclusive imagined worlds play to the world? Rather well, maybe; Tintin’s early box-office has been healthy, but in territories which already know Tintin.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.

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