26 October 2011


Not for nothing, but I feel it's worth mentioning once again that my favourite film of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Back in 1981, Steven Spielberg discovered the works of Belgian author Hergé, while doing press duties for the first Indiana Jones film, and reading a review that favourably compared the two. Spielberg has been trying to bring Tintin to the big screen ever since, and the result is The Adventures of Tintin- The Secret of the Unicorn.

Like other Spielberg projects I could mention, from this year in particular, the project is a veritable melting pot of creative talents, and so the plot comes from merging three of Hergé's stories. Tintin is a renowned journalist (of indeterminate age) who stumbles into the midst of an ancient feud when he buys a model ship in a Parisian market. The ship is one of three identical models of the Unicorn, which lies on the ocean floor somewhere, packed with sunken treasure. Allying himself with a sozzled old sea-dog, Captain Haddock, Tintin and his dog Snowy are swept into a treasure hunt against the sinister Sakharine.

Earlier this year, Cowboys and Aliens was one of Spielberg's projects as an executive producer, arriving on screens after a long period in production, and yet with numerous brilliant filmmakers and actors brought along for the ride. If anything lowered my expectations for Tintin, which stars Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and boasts a script from Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, and a new score by John Williams, and has Peter flipping Jackson as a second-unit director(!), it was my relative disappointment with Cowboys and Aliens.

And yet The Secret of the Unicorn suffers from none of the earlier film's problems. Part of what makes its personality so indelibly enjoyable is that everyone working on it seems to have something in common, and that's a great affection for the source material. It's a Boy's Own tale, certainly, but then it's quite a faithful adaptation of three consecutive Tintin stories, which weren't renowned for their female characters anyway. And yet it moves apace- there's about ten minutes of exposition in the whole thing, and the rest of the running time is assigned to "Big Funny Action-Adventure Mystery". And gosh, does it tick all of those boxes.

While falling over myself to praise every little thing about a brand-new full-blooded Spielberg adventure movie, it behooves me to first mention the script, because that's what really stands out. Moffat wrote it before agreeing to take over as head writer on Doctor Who, and the final product feels very much of Moffat's style. It's funny and unpredictable, its central mystery plot densely plotted but not contrived, and it feels enough like his that you can guess which bits were added by Wright and Cornish, and appreciate those bits too. There are a couple of sight gags that feel like pure Wright, and with Cornish having cut his teeth on Attack the Block, here's another hero who may be younger than he appears.

With the task of bringing Tintin and his adventures to a new audience, the film retains an old-fashioned sensibility. But if the medium is the message, then this 3D performance-capture animation is as modern a version of Tintin as you can imagine. Still, the aesthetic is far more charming than we've seen in the films that Robert Zemeckis has made with this technique. Nobody looks photo-real, but the character design offsets any unnerving qualities. And happily, it makes Snowy into a proper character, in much the same vein as Gromit or Muttley are dogs who interact with the human characters without needing to speak English. Arguably, it's taken this long to make the film because you couldn't do this story justice in live-action.

Andy Serkis practically leads the charge as Captain Haddock. As new as performance capture technology may be, he's practically an old hand by now, and he steals scenes all over the shop as the alcoholic sailor on whom Tintin relies. Jamie Bell plays our hero's agelessness rather well, with fresh-faced enthusiasm complementing his steely and resourceful determination. Daniel Craig is clearly having fun playing outside of himself as the villain of the piece, and although Simon Pegg and Nick Frost aren't present very often, you're engaged enough by their comic relief that you'll soon get over trying to figure out who is playing Thompson and who is playing Thomson.

But there are drawbacks to this technique. There's one brilliant comedic scene in which Tintin has to recover an item from a room of sleeping blaggards, on a ship that sways side to side and tilts them all over the place, without waking anyone up. The camerawork in the virtual environment, coupled with the deliberately animated look of the piece, makes it reminiscent of a video game cutscene. Likewise, the film's most memorable setpiece, a chase scene that takes place in one bravura take, which would obviously be impossible in live-action, is only dulled by that video game feel.

Truthfully though, the impressive thing about The Secret of the Unicorn is how it calls back to Indiana Jones in spirit, rather than making any obvious connections. It's certified PG, but Spielberg has always been able to get away with a hell of a lot, at PG level. Villains wield guns against our young hero, there are fist-fights aplenty, and the entire plot hinges upon Haddock's desperate alcoholism. As often as films are labelled "fun for the whole family", Spielberg's absolute mastery of that balance is inimitable. Perhaps Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's 12A certificate might appear to be the least of its problems, but that's still somewhere it went wrong. Not to worry though, he more than atones for his last film with his new one.

The Adventures of Tintin- The Secret of the Unicorn isn't a film that will convert performance-capture sceptics, but that's because, thankfully, it's a film first, and an industrial point second. Spielberg has always had a keen commercial instinct, and yet the fulfilment of his version of Tintin, as must have been floating around in his head for almost thirty years, is more purely enjoyable than that. It feels like a long time since we saw a good, old-fashioned, PG-rated family adventure in this mould, but to see one with a cracking script, brought to life with this much affection for its source and respect for its audience, is nothing short of rapturous.

The Adventures of Tintin- The Secret of the Unicorn is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Secret of the Unicorn, why not share your comments below? And I'm sure I'm not the first to point it out, but Jamie Bell is from my neck of the woods, meaning that we actually got a Teesside Tintin on the big screen...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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