The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) [Blu-ray]

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I’ve seen an article that reports that when Steven Spielberg was on the press tour in Europe for the Indiana Jones movies, a reporter put it to him that Jones was really just his grown-up version of Hergé’s Tintin, much like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander was that author’s updating of Pippi Longstocking. Spielberg denied this on the perfectly reasonable grounds that he had no idea who Tintin was; but the comment made him go look, and a brand new Tintinologist was soon formed.

Many years later, and seemingly in a mood to get back to his Indiana Jones-era roots but now equipped with the best CGI and motion-capture rendering technology ever seen, Spielberg has teamed up with The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson (here serving as producer) to finally deliver his take on the teenage Belgian hero. Jackson needed no persuading: his Tintin fanboi credentials are firm and fast right back to his Kiwi childhood.

And since we’re presenting credentials, I should confess that I was never a Tintin fan as a kid; my only real exposure to them was the 1960s cartoon serial version, whose perpetually rerun five-minute instalments seemed to pop up anytime I was watching children’s TV during the school summer holidays and which was prefaced by the stentorian clarion call announcing “Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin!” But I never seemed to catch any two consecutive episodes, and I never tracked down the books – until a few weeks before the Spielberg/Jackson movie opened, at which point I felt that I should give one or two of them a whirl and found that yes, actually, they were really rather good. (So good, I bought more.)

Hence I’m no expert and no passionate devotee of the bequiffed journalist, but know enough to be dangerous: so in the quite wonderful titles sequence (that put me in mind of Catch Me If You Can) I could spot the little nods to The Black Island and to Destination Moon’s iconic mode of transport, and could absolutely adore the opening market square scene in which Hergé himself has a ‘cameo’ as a street artist doing a remarkably familiar sketch of Tintin before the action commences.

It’s the early scenes that are really quite delightful. It’s perfectly paced and full of spot-on comedy timing and visual gags while also featuring breathless action sequences: it all feels like it’s been choreographed for optimum effect by a team consisting of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. There’s a thoroughly British sense of humour running through it, too, that could almost make you think this was an Aardman production and that Gromit himself could show up for a cameo at any moment. Spielberg clearly savoured the new creative possibilities offered to him by the CGI medium and it energised to create some beautiful and effective shots (one where a shadow ‘comes alive’ in a dark house is both subtle and chillingly eerie.) As a result I smiled throughout, I laughed frequently, and was totally charmed for fully the first hour.

Then as we move through the midway point the film starts to runaway with itself, with one breathless action sequence following hard on the heels of another. There is not allowed to be a single minute of quiet contemplation, as though even Steven Spielberg – who pretty much defined this genre back in the 1970s and 80s – no longer trusts the audience to stay with him during the character-building moments that were always such a crucial part of his films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s got to be non-stop thrills and spills, all the way down.

It just shows how even a director as peerless as Spielberg can lose his bearings somewhat when presented with a modern technical toolkit that allows him to do literally anything and everything that his imagination can conceive of. Like so many directors moving into CGI before him (quick shout-out here to Robert Zemeckis), he’s so intoxicated with hitherto impossible scenes now made possible that he fails to stop and ask the crucial question: just because I could, does it mean I should?

The pivotal scene for me that proved the point of diminishing returns for me was the sequence in which Captain Haddock recalls the story of the sailing ship The Unicorn of the title. It’s done with fast cutting between modern day and history, in a mind-bending timey-wimey style that must surely have been one of the parts of the script contributed by Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat (one of three credited writers on the film along with Attack the Block director Joe Cornish and Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz/Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright.) It doesn’t help that Haddock was never one of my favourite characters from the books or that 1960s cartoon series.

That’s not to question how good a job Andy Serkis does in playing Haddock and imbuing him with more warmth and rounded personality than the character ever had before. Jamie Bell is also spot-on perfect as Tintin, really bringing to life a character that’s always been a bit of a plot device rather than an actual rounded personality if truth be told; and Daniel Craig is quite wonderful as Sakharine, the arch villain of the piece, effortlessly mixing genuine menace with pantomime villainy. Not that you’ll be able to spot the actors from their appearance on screen of course: all the characters here are generated by CGI from motion-capture performances, the field that Serkis has dominated ever since he put in such a spell-binding breakout mo-cap performance as Gollem in The Lord of the Rings. That explains why Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – who could not look more different – end up ideally cast as identical policemen Thomson and Thompson.

Does the CGI rendering work? It’s actually quite a curious mix of styles we get here: the backgrounds and locations are absolutely stunning and authentic, so much so that it was hard to remember that it was CGI at all. A couple of the characters also come close to this photo-realism – Tintin and Sakharine especially, both of them coming as close to overcoming the usual technical limitations of human CGI characters as I’ve yet seen.

Other characters – and most of the ‘featured’ ones like Haddock, Thomson and Thompson and Silk – are clearly more cartoonish parodies. Instead of the realistic human proportions of Tintin, these characters have oversized heads compared to their bodies – dimensions close to the Thunderbirds puppets before Gerry Anderson went all authentic for his next 1960s marionette series Captain Scarlet. It makes them look as though it’s a live action film but that the characters are being played by actors wearing oversized papier-maché model heads; in the case of Bianca Castafiore (the only significant recurring female character in Hergé’s oeuvre) it looks exactly as if it’s Meryl Streep, but with her face encased in a huge amount of latex prosthetics to make her whole head look obese and oversized. Snowy falls somewhere in between: he’s rendered authentically, but his anthropomorphised behaviour drifts him towards the Disney-style camp. He ends up – perhaps inevitably – as a hyperactive, much fluffier and far dimmer version of Gromit.

On the Blu-ray: I’ve often said that hi-res was a medium invented for Pixar. Well, this film wrests the crown away and shows that there are still heights as-yet unimagined even by Pixar themselves. It’s quite spectacular, almost every frame a work of art. I found myself having to jump back to watch a scene again and again for how it was put together, to appreciate the texture on the walls, the stunning ‘location’ scenery, the nuance of expression on Tintin’s face, the dust motes in the air. It’s not just the top-of-the-line technical level of compression and encoding, it’s the entire cinematic vision behind it that makes this so extraordinary and which allows the Blu-ray format to display all its wares in one place in a way it seldom can anywhere else. The soundtrack is also very well balanced, delivering plenty of bass muscle and explosive power but not skimping on the voice track like so many blockbuster films end up doing, so you can hear the story as well.

So how does this all tally up? Not perfect, by any means. In some ways it can be frustrating – most especially in the ending which pretty much just stops mid-scene and shouts “tune in for the next episode of …” Some of its creative calls are a little odd. But others are touches of sheer genius, and overall there’s so much in this film that works – and works brilliantly – and which left me smiling and applauding for both the technical and creative artistry not to mention the sheer audacity of what it was doing, that it would be churlish to give it anything under four stars.

I certainly hope it gets a chance to deliver on that “next episode” promise, and am very interested indeed to see what will happen if and when Jackson takes over the director’s baton from Spielberg for part 2. But that will have to wait for Jackson to finish The Hobbit first, and for new writer Anthony Horowitz to wield his pen and whether they stick to the plan of basing the next production on the two original stories of The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun.

One thought on “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) [Blu-ray]

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