Dir: Steven Spielberg. US-New Zealand. 2011. 106mins
The Herge estate must be thrilled that they entrusted Tintin to Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson who bring the character to the screen with much of the books’ humour, spirit and sense of adventure intact. The Secret Of The Unicorn is a spellbinding cinematic feat which delivers Tintin to a new generation with the same exhilaration as Spielberg and Lucas reinvented the ‘30s serials in Raiders Of The Lost Ark 30 years ago. It’s an example of what the Hollywood system does best – harness the best material, talent and technology in the world and cook it up into unadulterated entertainment for young and old alike. Oh, and it’s also glorious in 3D.
The Tintin adventures are rip-roaring and old-fashioned – and this film takes the audience into that era in more ways than one.
Since Tintin is a European phenomenon first and foremost, Spielberg and his distributors Paramount and Sony opted to release the film at the end of this month in Europe before a Christmas US release. Its inevitable success here will no doubt help to build buzz for domestic family audiences to whom the world of Tintin is an unknown. It’s a clever reverse of conventional wisdom whereby the US dictates openings in the rest of the world, and should pay dividends for the production.
Expanding on the superior motion capture technology developed by Jackson’s Weta Digital for Avatar, Spielberg is the first film-maker to render humans with success, helped by the fact that the characters’ faces possess many of the exaggerated features drawn by Herge.
And if Robert Zemeckis, who pioneered the technique in the Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, is jealous, he should be. Spielberg’s expert storytelling and understanding of his vintage material is just as crucial here as the technology. This digital movie is never creepy, but full of charm and excitement, and the audience becomes instantly hooked on its visual style within minutes.
It’s not like a Disney animated movie which hits very young children and its intense action and adult notions will mean its fanbase starts slightly older – 10 or so. Adults of all ages will lap it up. Jackson is directing a second film, and opportunities for building on the existing Tintin book sales and merchandising are dramatic. Some toy version of Snowy The Dog will appear in the bedrooms of millions of kids over the next few years.
The story blends three Tintin adventures together – The Secret Of The Unicorn and its sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Crab With The Golden Claws – but doesn’t betray the source books, rather displaying great affection to them and the essence of the characters. From the delightful 2D-animated credit sequence onwards, Spielberg tosses in plentiful references to the whole series and aficionados will love spotting them.
The action starts immediately at a flea market in Brussels where investigative reporter Tintin – after a street artist amusingly paints him just as Herge would have – takes a shine to a model of a 17th Century warship. But just after he has bought it, he is approached first by an American called Barnaby, then by a sinister bearded man called Ivan Sakharine keen to buy it off him. Tintin refuses and takes the model home, but when his faithful dog Snowy knocks the ship off a sideboard, the middle mast breaks and a metal tube slides out and rolls underneath it.
So begins the adventure as Tintin gets caught up in a race with Sakharine to find the two other models of the ship, called the Unicorn. Each of the models contains one of these tubes containing a parchment with clues to the whereabouts of the lost treasure of the Unicorn. Along the way he meets Captain Haddock, the last living descendant of the captain of the Unicorn, who joins him in his quest to foil Sakharine onto an ocean ship to the Sahara and back.
Each of the Tintin regulars – Thompson and Thomson, Bianca Castafiore, Nestor the butler, the treacherous first mate Allan – is lovingly brought to life here, but best of all are the three key characters Tintin, Haddock and Snowy. As played by Jamie Bell (his body movements as well as his voice), Tintin is appealing without being anodyne. As played by Andy Serkis, Haddock is a hilarious Scottish drunk, all his profanities and exclamations intact from the books, and Snowy is the perfectly realised canine companion to them both, his every movement or tweak of the ear enriching his characteristics.
As you’d expect, the colour palette and mass of visual information is sublime. When the eye happens to rest on Tintin’s quiff or Snowy’s fur, the detail is staggering. But thanks to a script by Steven Moffat, and Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, the film’s key achievement is capturing the essence of the books.
Principally written and set from the 1930s to the 1960s, the Tintin adventures are rip-roaring and old-fashioned – and this film takes the audience into that era in more ways than one. It is a style which entirely lacks the contemporary references of a DreamWorks Animation movie or the technological swagger of a Michael Bay action film, but its success depends on that innocence. Audiences will love it for that, just like readers used to love the books.
Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Wingnut Films, Nickelodeon Movies
US distribution: Paramount Pictures
International distribution: PPI/SPRI
Executive producers: Ken Kamins, Nick Rodwell, Stephane Sperry
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy
Screenplay: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the books by Herge
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Art direction: Andrew L Jones, Jeff Wisniewski
Editing: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Main cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Daniel Mays, Mackenzie Crook, Gad Elmaleh, Kim Stengel