Friday, December 2, 2011

Upcoming Release Review: The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

The Adventures of Tintin opens in Australian cinemas on 26 December, 2011 through Paramount.

Incredibly, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn will be one of two Steven Spielberg films (joining War Horse) scheduled for release in Australia this Boxing Day. It is produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and written by a collaboration of Steven Moffat (Dr Who), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) and based on three of the original comic books from Belgian artist Georges Remi (or Herge) - The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944).

To put it simply, Tintin is a lot of fun and it really feels like Spielberg has recaptured the old-fashioned, run-and-gun adventure style of his classic Indiana Jones films. Utilizing motion capture from the visual effects team at Jackson's Weta Digital, like in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes from earlier in the year, the film is beautifully animated (to a jaw-dropping extent at times) and well voiced and performed by the talented cast. As expected Andy Serkis, as Captain Haddock, steals the show. The detail present in every shot is just incredible. I really do think it would take multiple viewings to absorb everything because there is so much going on. Simply watching Snowy in any scene (and he is given several brilliant individual moments) is rewarding. Come holiday season I can highly recommend giving The Adventures of Tintin a go in 3D – and that’s something I rarely say.

The film’s opening carefully immerses us in the world of the motion capture, by focusing on the human characters more than the spectacle – but don’t worry that is to come - introducing us to Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his dog Snowy. Intrigued by a model replica of a ship called the Unicorn, he purchases it for practically nothing, but immediately finds himself hassled into selling it by a shady businessman, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Danial Craig). Inquiring as to who the headstrong young journalist was, the storekeeper responds: “Everyone knows him. That’s Tintin.” There are references made to Tintin’s past achievements (because Tintin’s adventures actually began back in 1929) in the news clippings found on the walls of Tintin’s apartment. Intrigued by the interest in the ship, Tintin researches and discovers that there is more than one model ship, deduces that Sakharine must possess the other one, and that it would make for a great story.

Tintin returns to his apartment to find the ship stolen, but with the help of Snowy, also discovers a hidden scroll that had slipped out of the ship’s mast before the theft. He then finds himself shot at and abducted by Sakharine’s henchmen – but not before Tintin’s wallet (containing the scroll) is stolen by an elusive pickpocket, whom the local detectives Thompson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are hot on the trail for. Tintin is imprisoned on the SS Karabourdjan, where he meets the ship’s permanently drunken captain, Haddock (Andy Serkis).

Together they plot an escape and make for the Moroccan port of Bagghar, where a stopover in the desert causes Haddock to hallucinate and remember that his ancestor was once the Captain of the Unicorn in the 17th Century and that his treasure-laden ship was attacked by a pirate ship commandeered by Red Rackham. It is revealed that there was a third replica, also containing a scroll (in Bagghar) and that Sakharine was a descendant of Rackham, desiring all three scrolls to reveal the location of the Unicorn and it’s treasure.  It is left up to Tintin, Haddock and the returning Thompsons to uncover the secret embedded within the scrolls before Sakharine does.

The film’s story unfolds at a hyperactive pace, and despite hitting the skids in the middle; it is predominantly a frenetic, relentlessly exciting, edge-of-your seat experience. It’s very much for kids, despite some gun violence and general destruction, but I think there is enough intuitive problem solving and humorous physical gags to appeal to parents too. The script is clever, and complex, but it relies on convenience, and Tintin’s abnormally quick intuition to propel the story forward, often not waiting around to explain itself. In most cases Tintin explains everything to us by thinking out loud in monologue. This is an odd mode of storytelling, but it is justified because his whip-smart companion is always by his side. From memory of my experiences with the comics and the earlier animated versions (and there is a very funny throwback to the hand-drawn representation) I believe this is exactly how they read.

The animation is absolutely stunning, and it really is marvelous what Spielberg and his team has been able to create utilizing a mix of the motion capture and the digitally animated backgrounds. Some of the action sequences just wouldn’t be possible in a live-action film. The film is also well scored (and not over-scored this time) by John Williams, and beautifully photographed by long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The cast is great – though I kept thinking that Tintin was voiced by Ewan McGregor, despite knowing that it was Jamie Bell. Serkis, a veteran of the motion capture (Gollum, King Kong and the wonderful Cesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes) certainly seems most at ease, while Pegg and Frost have some fun as the Thompsons.

At 107 minutes, it was a little long – and the chief criticisms I have are the pacing issues – jumping from location to location too quickly early and struggling to establish a rhythm, and noticeably losing momentum in the middle as Tintin and Haddock find themselves stranded in the desert. Haddock’s recount of his ancestry and Sir Francis’ run in with Red Rackham was also a little bit long-winded, despite being a visual spectacle. Also, the climactic dueling cranes sequence seemed too out-of-control, and an attempt to top the Bagghar chase sequence, which is not just the best scene in the film, but one of the best I have seen this year. These are minor quibbles because I was won over by the adventure, and in awe of the animation. Definitely believe the hype surrounding Tintin, it's quality filmmaking from the prolific director who has made a return to form. But will it be for War Horse that he is recognised this year?

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)


  1. I'm glad this worked so well for you. It didn't for me; I found it messy and boring and lacking the soul of the original. But I'm grown up on Tintin, having read the albums hundreds of times. I think I'm very picky and hard to convince. It was a lost cause from the beginning.

  2. Great review man!
    In retrospect, the film did have some flaws as you pointed it out, but it was such an enjoyable experience that those can be easily overlooked. I loved it so much, and mostly because it was those rare moments when everyone else was having as much fun as you. I even took this old grandma of mine who hasn't set foot in a cinema hall in years, and she loved it. Great film by Spielberg and crew. And I loved Haddock and Snowy!

  3. @ Jessica - It did work well for me, but my exposure to Tintin was very small - I never read the comics, and watched the animated show from time to time. I thought it did lose a bit of oomph in the middle, and there were some evident pacing issues, but I got immersed in the motion capture world and found some of the action scenes to be remarkable. I dunno, I had a lot of fun :-)

    @ Nikhat - Yeah, there were times when we all laughed out loud (a small theaterette too) I think my mum would love it too - so its not just for kids. Snowy was amazing - I'm going to watch it again and just watch him!

  4. Spielberg and his artists have created a rich visual film.