I must confess that I approached The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, with some cynicism. One, is it possible at all to take a series so loved by so many generations into another medium and satisfy the millions of zealots who would come to the halls armed with the finest of fine-tooth combs? (To give an example, as soon as the first trailer was released on the Web, there was an outcry in Britain over why Captain Haddock had been given a Scottish accent in the film). Two, I was chary of the lethal combination of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (Spielberg directs and co-produces, Jackson co-produces).
Both men come from that school of action movie-making which believes in pitilessly testing how much destruction, and how many chases and cliffhanging sequences an audience can take before it waves the white flag and staggers away, mind numbed by the relentless sound and fury. But Spielberg’s last—and hopefully, final—Indiana Jones film, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, had proved that big budgets and technology are not enough by themselves to generate a thrilling experience. And some of the Big Action sequences in Peter Jackson’s King Kong went on for so long that they got boring—oh come on, kill that T-Rex, Kong, and move on!
And, now, in Tintin, they have motion-capture animation, and 3D!
I remembered those exquisite half-page panels of Herge’s, depicting a car chase through a busy marketplace, with maybe as many as 50 figures, each reacting to the mayhem all around, drawn in loving detail. You could keep yourself busy for ten minutes or more just studying a panel like that. That immaculate craftsmanship, freezing a gripping and dynamic action sequence in static two-dimensional space, would thrill but never overwhelm. What would the kings of excess, Spielberg and Jackson, do with such scenes, I wondered.
Well, I think Herge would have loved the film.
Motion-capture animation seems the perfect way to put Tintin on screen; every character—from the loyal Nestor to the dastardly Allan—looks just as Herge painted them, except that they are now flesh and blood. The way the film gives us the first glimpse of Tintin’s face is a stroke of sheer genius—a portrait of the boy reporter done by a roadside painter, and it is, of course, Herge’s 2D Tintin, and then the camera moves to show us the 3D Tintin who will carry us through the rest of the movie. It’s introduction as tribute, and a seamless move from one medium to another.
The film is peppered with exact replications of Herge’s panels—like that of an iconic full-page panel from The Crab with the Golden Claws of Tintin and Haddock struggling in the Sahara desert with Snowy carrying a bone from the skeleton of a massive animal, or Tintin, holding on to a capsized boat in the middle of the ocean, firing at a villain’s aircraft.
And the big action sequences? Take the biggest one, in a crowded Arab town (just the sort of pandemonium that Herge and Tintin lovers reveled in), involving a motorcycle, its sidecar, a tank, a hawk, busy marketplaces and lots of pedestrians, and a dam burst—it’s over the top at exactly the Herge level. The battle at sea between Sir Francis Haddock’s Unicorn and Red Rackham’s pirate ship is ferocious and awesome without ever losing a wide-eyed child-wonder aura (They must have put Peter Jackson on tranquilisers when they edited those sequences). Only one complaint: Herge would never have shown Haddock’s disarmed crewmen being slaughtered by the pirates (I suppose the tranquilisers wore off for a bit).
Throughout its 109 minutes, the film exudes the makers’ respect for the original material, and consequent restraint—this is Tintin, not Transformers or Terminator. Almost incredibly for a Spielberg/ Jackson film, the last 10 minutes are quiet (and faithful to the original story): there are no explosions, no race against time, no cheap tricks like unexpected shocks to sneeringly jar the audience’s steadily calming mind. At the end, one is left with a sense that this is the first step of a long project taken up by the faithful.
The only area where the filmmakers diverge distinctly from Herge is in making Snowy much smarter than he is in the comics. And I think it’s absolutely great that this one area of disagreement with Herge will make the fans happier. That, I think, is a triumph.