Review: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, 2011, dir. Steven Spielberg

(Cross-posted over at GoSeeTalk.)

While watching The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, you can feel Spielberg grinning happily on the other side of the camera. It’s a welcome quality; adapting Hergé’s beloved comic books to screen in the first of a planned series of films with collaborator Peter Jackson seems to have brought out the Beard’s inner Jones. Indeed, The Adventures of Tintin feels very much like the Indiana Jones picture Spielberg should have made in 2008 upon the release of the rightfully misliked The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But everything that picture lacked, The Adventures of Tintin boasts in abundance and in every single frame– an unfettered sense of enterprise, a contagious air of delight, and a never-ending flow of excitement, which altogether should keep any audience on the edge of their seats.

The film– which draws on three separate Tintin stories– doesn’t waste any time getting the plot rolling. We meet our eponymous hero as he’s accosted in the streets by the film’s villain, Sakharine (Daniel Craig), over what appears to be nothing more than a simple model ship named the Unicorn; of course, it’s quite plain that it’s no ordinary model, and before too long Tintin finds himself and his dog Snowy wrapped up in a mystery that leads them to Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), a loutish drunk and also as it happens the last true descendant of the legendary Sir Francis Haddock. What does Sakharine want with the model ship and Haddock himself? Leave it to our plucky trio of adventurers to uncover the truth.

There’s one thing that should be spoken of first in any Tintin review: Andy Serkis is amazing. In fact, I might credit Serkis for the reason that the rest of the cast manages to come through so well performing with motion capture– after all, when you’re on set with the master, at least a fraction of his excellence is bound to rub off on you. For many the most divisive part of Tintin will come down to mocap, something that’s been criticized in almost every release to employ it in the last seven years (The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol come to mind immediately). The good news is that technology has come a long way since then, and even better Serkis was born to play mocapped characters. As Haddock, he’s a treasure. Literally every gesture and reaction the man makes is pure gold and practically worth the price of admission on its own.

But more than that, just having him in the picture seems to have had an impact on his fellow cast members, because every performance here just works. Maybe the eyes aren’t quite right yet, but in terms of conveying emotion everyone here is incredibly expressive, from Bell to Craig to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson*. Mocap techniques render these characters looking lifelike enough, but it’s the cast that really makes them feel genuine and human more than the technology itself. Is motion capture a direct replacement for live, in-the-flesh acting? Certainly not, but as a stylizing tool it can, as evidenced here, yield resoundingly effective results when you want to bring a comic book to life. And if the mocap doesn’t totally succeed for you, then Spielberg’s direction and shared vision with Jackson should make up for it.

Tintin is a film that’s packed with detail and information, not just cinematic Easter eggs for fans of the series** but for everyone. Every frame is stuffed with innumerable components that really allow the world Spielberg has constructed here to breathe deeply while shuddering to life. He’s given us rich, vibrant filmmaking here, coupled with absolutely wonderful world-building that transports us both figuratively and literally as Tintinglobe-trots from England to the Middle East and back again. Spielberg and Jackson fashion a vast playground in which to spin a narrative and stage action set piece after action set piece and never fail to populate any of them with countless elements which give the film  much-needed vitality.

And make no mistake, Tintin is very much a picture of action. It’s not an action film, per se; it’s a detective adventure that just happens to be bursting at the seams with bravura action sequences. Tintin peaks before the last act with its two best action showcases, a battle at sea that out-pirates the Pirates of the Caribbean films and an eye-popping chase through the city of Bagghar, but before, after, and in between these scenes the opportunities to catch your breath are few. Tintin is exhausting, something I mean to only be complimentary; the film only sparingly affords itself opportunity to stretch its legs. Like its indomitable protagonist, Tintin is intent on revealing the secrets behind Sakharine’s plot and Haddock’s ancestral heritage and refuses to come to a full stop until it has done so– but that’s okay, because by making his film into a very nearly unending pastiche of action, Spielberg has all but guaranteed that audiences will not for one moment be bored***.

But will you be moved? It’s pretty easy to critique Tintin on the basis of substance, since it’s primary interests lie in the odd couple relationship between Haddock and Tintin and in its many moments of action. At first glance, maybe, it doesn’t really appear to be about anything, but it’s about plenty even if it’s not concerned with sending you out of the theater ruminating on the human condition. However with one character living on his own in Europe without any family to speak of (and only a totally amazing dog for company), and with one character existing in the shadow of his ancestor’s great deeds, there’s certainly room to do so. More than anything, Tintin is about the thrill of an adventure, celebrating the work of a great artist, and synthesizing both ideas by taking its audience on an incredible breath-taking journey. Tintin revels in the act of discovery, relishing each clue and every bread crumb on the trail, and it wants you to share in that cathartic sense of realization along with its characters. I don’t know if it needs to be about anything more than that.

Whether or not The Adventures of Tintin will satisfy diehards of Hergé’s original work I can’t say. But I can state with confidence that Tintin should wow the uninitiated on the strength of its own merits– it’s a fantastic thriller and probably the most exciting picture in theaters at the time of this writing. Along with that, it’s the first time in a long time we’ve seen this side of Spielberg come out and execute with such aplomb. Maybe seeing an energized Spielberg using his entertainment talents effectively is all the reason any of us should require.

*Who better to play this duo than Pegg and Frost? Second best casting after Serkis, I’d say.

**Full disclosure: I’m very much unfamiliar with the books, but I’d be shocked to hear from a Tintin aficionado that no such nods exist throughout the film. I patted myself on the back when I spotted the crab with the golden claws. (I think.)

***Not even during the opening credits. The man’s committed.


15 thoughts on “Review: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, 2011, dir. Steven Spielberg

  1. I’ve only read a few Tintin comics, and it’s been so long I don’t really remember them. But I’m glad to hear that the film is good; visually, it looks great, in my opinion, and adventure movies are one type of film I really love.

    I’m really hoping this is a commercial success as well. More Tintin would be great, and maybe if it’s successful someone will turn their eye to Asterix as well (which I love). To the best of my knowledge, no Asterix film has ever gotten a U.S. theatrical release, and I’m not sure there’s even been a U.S. home video release of any since The Twelve Tasks of Asterix in the 80s.

    There’s been an upsurge in American comics properties in the last decade, and the manga/anime fandom has started to spread into the mainstream. It’s time for the Franco-Belgian comics to have their day in the sun.

  2. I know I’ve read Tintin books as a kid but like you, I can’t remember a single one of them. Mostly I just remember Herge’s aesthetic, which I quite like and which Spielberg and Jackson honor appropriately in this adaptation.

    I don’t think anything of the major European comics has really wriggled into the American consciousness; I mean, the mainstream cares too much about super heroes to even pay attention to things like Y the Last Man. So forget about Asterix films ever making much of an impact over here. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t even aware that there were Asterix films. Really.)

    My hope is that Tintin does well enough to justify Jackson’s turn at the helm, and that their tag-team combo leads to more titles from across the pond finding their way to screens. That’d be a nice change of pace from the comic book films that dominate US multiplexes.

    • You’re right in that if it isn’t superheroes, it’s pretty much off the radar for Americans. Sometimes film-makers manage to sneak one by (Road to Perdition was a critical success, if not a box-office one), but it seems like they don’t do the blockbuster numbers that the superhero ones do. But I suspect that if there’s to be any hope for drawing from different sources, it’s going to be like that; hope for success, not Batman numbers, and don’t necessarily worry about whether the audience knows it came from a comic book.

  3. I read all the Tintin comic books as a kid over and over again. They were great, full of mystery, adventure and fun. I hope this will be just as good and transport me back to my childhood. From your raving review, it looks like it might just do that! Highly looking forward to it!

    • Well, Cas, I can only hope that the film does the books justice for you– or that you enjoy yourself even if it doesn’t! Obviously, I quite liked it, and at this point I’m just curious to see what other people think.

      One note: You can feel free to skip the 3D. It doesn’t hurt the film but I never felt like it was truly necessary, though it does help the chase scene through Bagghar (which is really fantastic) pop a bit.

  4. Pingback: Everybody’s Talkin’ 12 – 15 (Chatter From Other Bloggers) | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

  5. Woo hoo! Glad to see a positive review! I’m a huge fan of the comics so naturally I’m intrigued by this, but I’m aware of the difficulty of adapting this. I look forward to seeing this even more now, great review Andrew!

    • Hey, thanks Ruth! Like Cas I hope this doesn’t let you down– I have no strong ties to the books, just passing familiarity, so this didn’t really have anything to live up to for me beyond what I expect of filmmakers of Spielberg’s and Jackson’s caliber. Looking forward to see your reaction to it!

  6. I never read any of the novels, but I am curious. Maybe not curious enough to see this over ‘Dragon Tattoo’ or M:I4 this week, but still curious.

    • From the mix I hear on Girl, you might do well choosing between this and Tom Cruise Is More Super Awesome Than You.

      Then again maybe I’m biased against giving Girl money because of David Denby.

  7. I guess I would have to say I was let down, because I was hoping it would be something I could crow about…

    It was very good. I mean, the action sequences were all well done, the visuals looked great, and it was a blast watching Spielberg work an omniscient camera.

    But like we’ve been tweeting, Tintin didn’t connect with me, and that’s kind of an issue. If you dont care about the main character, the rest of the stuff kind of gets a flat tire. Plus occasionally I had some issues I guess with the fine line this movie tried to toe between being a cartoon and being a live action film. I dont think I was able to express myself that clearly on them in my review, I cant totally put my finger on it, its just that it seemed to belong to either/or, and it made me uncomfortable somehow, wishing it would pick one or the other.

    Probably just me. As usual, glad you enjoyed… and a great write up even though Im not as smitten with it.

    • For the record I do understand the criticism of Tintin’s character and the dissonance some people experience in trying to connect with him. I just think that his relatively minimal nature– both in terms of his aesthetic design and his backstory– is part of why people love him so much. As I’ve said before, anyone can be Tintin. That’s certainly part of the comic’s longevity and success, I think.

      That said I think Tintin can still be enjoyed just as an action movie, especially since Spielberg is really generous with his action and basically never lets the plot slow down for a second.

  8. Pingback: 2011: Retrospective, Awards, & ACVF’s Top 15 (Pt.1) « A Constant Visual Feast

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