Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011) Review

"Yeah, I think we took a wrong turn somewhere"... The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)

Tintin, the intrepid boy adventurer of Hergé's iconic comic strip series, is long overdue his Hollywood debut. Steven Spielberg first discovered the character after a 1981 review of Raiders Of The Lost Ark compared Indy's escapade to the adventures of Belgium's premier journo, and the director soon became an avid fan, falling in love with the series' detailed artwork. He instantly set about adapting a story for his next film, with a 1984 draft, supposedly about poachers in Africa, attracting Jack Nicholson to the part of Captain Haddock. So, 27 years later and The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn is finally on our screens, co-produced by Peter Jackson and filmed entirely with state-of-the-art motion capture technology. Has it been worth the wait? Let's find out...

Traditionally I'd dedicate this second paragraph to outlining the film's plot, but it's complete balderdash, and all you need know is that Tintin is on a quest to find three model ships which point toward lost treasure. To explain any more would be cumbersome and boring, and half the fun of the film is reveling in its silly surprises - one of which jets around the corner every five minutes. In fairness, Hergé's strips were always wildly convoluted, making little to no sense in the run up to their finale. The screenplay, penned by Steven Moffat and brushed up by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, stays true to that formula, piling on epic set-pieces as the story ambles along, nodding back to past Tintin adventures including Crab With The Golden Claws (1941) and Red Rackham's Treasure (1944).

Animation was undoubtedly the only way to fully realise Hergé's world (Spielberg originally wanted to shoot his tale live action) but the mo-cap technology hasn't yet caught up to the director's vision, and occasionally it results in jerky action choreography and unconvincing facial expression. A frequent complaint with mo-cap is that it renders characters lifeless by deadening their eyes; arguably an actor's greatest tool. That's also true here, and if Spielberg's film - which is often breathtakingly beautiful - proves anything, it's that we're still a long way from fixing the problem. But he also finds an advantage to the technology which no director has yet exploited to such full effect - action.

You've probably heard whisperings of the Morocco chase sequence, involving a bird and a motorbike, and I can confirm those rumours now: it's extraordinary. In one impossible continuous shot, Spielberg tracks Tintin as he moves from vehicle to vehicle, rooftop to bustling marketplace, ducking and diving through a gorgeous landscape in the search for three withered pieces of paper; clues to the location of those sunken riches. There's no way such a shot could be accomplished in-camera, and Spielberg frequently extends the reality of his world to maximise his audience's enjoyment. The same could be said of the final crane duel, choreographed to recreate an earlier high-seas ship battle, which exhilarates in its scope and pace. There's little doubt in my mind that this is the best action film of the year.

But therein also lies Tintin's central problem. For as much as I enjoyed them it's impossible to deny that this is any more than a series of patchily connected set-pieces. Eventually I was left with a deep desire to spend more time with the characters, and for them to indulge in conversation, even fleetingly, on a higher level than exposition. The Thompson Twins (played here by regular Wright duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) provide a welcome comic diversion, and actually one of the film's high points. Whenever they're onscreen Tintin feels refreshed, giving room to a sub-plot about a local wallet thief, whose reveal is an absolute treat. Daniel Craig's villain, Ivanovich Sakharine, is also desperately underdeveloped, but the actor clearly relishes playing such a dastardly bastard, and he imbues the character with much more menace than the screenplay provides.

It's inconsistent, but Tintin could never be accused of being boring. This world-traversing mystery finds us at the hands of a revitalized Spielberg; the master storyteller is clearly having a blast, and his energy is infectious. My only wish is that he'd given a little more space to character, which gets lost amid the shootouts and swashbuckling on offer here. In a few years we'll be getting the sequel, to be directed by Peter Jackson. If he can sort out Unicorn's problems I'm confident we'll be looking at a winning franchise. Colour me excited...

P.S. In my first paragraph I was specific about this being Tintin's Hollywood debut. There were actually two live action French films produced in the 1960's, Tintin And The Mystery Of The Golden Fleece (Jean-Jacques Vierne, 1961) and Tintin And The Mystery Of The Blue Oranges (Philippe Condroyer, 1964), which aren't brilliant, but certainly worth tracking down for Hergé completists.

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