Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis
The Secret of the Unicorn is blatantly an introductory piece
When man boy reporter (seriously, what age is he?!) Tintin buys an intricately detailed model ship called the Unicorn, little does he know that he’s about to get caught up in an international adventure to chase down a centuries old treasure with a salty sea Captain. And all before the villainous Ivanovich Sakharine can track down the prize.
We delved deep into the lengthy history of Tintin’s journey to the big screen last issue – a process which was begun by Steven Spielberg back in the early 80’s. After securing the rights in the wake of creator Herge’s death, numerous attempts followed, many of which would have seen a live action Tintin. But with the advent of titles like Avatar and the continuing progress being made in the world of performance capture, the decision was made to craft something closer to a motion comic, a near photo-real adventure that could capture the stylised art of Herge’s original while also bringing every piece of modern technology to bear on the production.
Enlisting the help of Peter Jackson – Tintin fan, acclaimed filmmaker and, not incidentally, the owner of Weta Digital – the pair have formed a unique collaborative partnership, set on bringing a trio of Tintin tales to cinemas in the coming years. Rumour has it they flipped a coin to see who would direct the first instalment and Spielberg was the victor – tasked with introducing the characters to a new generation.
So how did he do?
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is blatantly an introductory piece, skirting around the edges of the major characters and seeming almost afraid to engage with anything more than the most rudimentary of plots. Tintin’s discovery of a note in his model ship leads him to seek out a hidden message from the legendary Sir Francis Haddock, in an overly familiar clue-finding quest. But the pieces come together with relative ease and the puzzle is overwhelmingly simplistic.
What we’re left with is a teaspoonful of story and exposition to fill the films nearly two hour running time, which Spielberg chooses to populate with overly broad characters and several action sequences which may be technically impressive but the chaotic stream of images and swooping shots actually served to distance me from the action. The supposed highlight is a lengthy motorcycle race/chase which involves floodwaters, a pilfering eagle, a tank carrying a building and acrobatics from the bike’s sidecar. It’s all vividly realised but only passably exciting, as the parties involved scrabble to keep hold of three scraps of paper. It’s nothing more than a video game, with most of the good stuff – interactivity – excised.
It doesn’t help that Tintin himself is an utterly irritating protagonist. He’s a personality free exposition machine, spouting out directions to nudge the narrative to the next location in a tone that somehow manages to be condescending and hopelessly naïve at the same time. There isn’t a hint of wit or irony to the character and quite why we want this kid to succeed in his endeavours is never really clear and for the love of all that his holy what age is he supposed to be? A working journalist with his own apartment, a gun and the strength to beat the crap out of a score of henchmen, yet with the stature and features of a teenager. With these bizarre attributes and few hero moments in the film, it’s hard to imagine young fans latching onto the character.
It’s left for the supporting cast to pick up the slack and that plan goes awry quite quickly with the characters of Thomson and Thompson. Voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for no apparent reason, the two bumbling, pratfall loving duds with no entertainment value. Things improve with the addition of Andy Serkis’ alcoholic Captain Haddock who at least has some depth but the performance goes too broad at times to be appealing. Daniel Craig’s villain is fine and Snowy is certainly cute but it’s too small a compliment of characters to make much of an impression.
But there are flashes of something better here – like an extended flashback sequence where Haddock recalls a story told in his family for generations, which cuts back and forth in a way only possible with the fluidity of CG. The visuals are often breath-taking, a world just removed from reality with lovingly recreated figures which might have leapt from the pages of Herge’s books and had some cosmetic surgery done along the way. There’s no mistaking them for reality, which is all the better to my mind, but the detail is immense – from the ripple of veins under flesh to some of the best cloth mechanics we’ve ever seen. If anything, the patently stylised visages atop otherwise near photo real figures are a little jarring but the integration of performance capture and graphics certainly gives it a unique look and is sure to capture the attention of committees come awards season.
Many exclamations of ‘great snakes’ later, the final punch up arrives and then fizzles out with no discernible crescendo. The coda too is oddly paced, finally reaching a point where we would expect most regular adventures to begin. But this is the exact moment Spielberg cues a curtain call, leaving the film feeling like an extended introduction to a more complete look at the Tintin universe. It leaves me curious about the possibility of another entry, even more so if it is to be directed by Jackson, but hardly ravenous.
These Adventures of Tintin are strangely inconsequential but the young should find the action distracting while their elders will probably be engaged for a time puzzling over the age of our hero. Once that passes, you’re left with a technically marvellous piece of animated fluff, not far removed from what you might see over breakfast of a Saturday morning. At least the 3D isn’t headache inducing.