Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Have You Hergé One About A Reporter And His Dog?

The Adventures of Tintin The Secret of the Unicorn
2011 USA Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Haddock inducing spoilers
to be discovered in this article.

You know, I always liked TinTin as a kid. I remember those comic strip albums which were a little over A4 in size and which used to be fairly expensive to buy... at least the Asterix ones got rereleased and sized down to a more affordable price... but there were no smaller versions of the TinTin strips, at least no tin the UK that I remember. Consequently, I used to only get bought one every couple of years as a young 'un. I think I only ever possessed about seven of them all told, but I always read what I had of these every year, fortified by such other childhood reading delights as Jennings, Asterix and a big pile of Harvey, DC and Marvel comics.

I also used to like those bite sized 5-10 minute episodes of (cue shouting voice) “Hergé’s The Adventuuuuureeeees of TinTin” which used to pop up every school holiday just before the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials, The Adventures of Robison Crusoe TV serial and Why Don’t You (just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead)? My favourite of these TinTin cartoons was, of course, The Crab With The Golden Claws and so, when the new Spielberg directed TinTin was announced I was doubly pleased and then doubly disappointed. Pleased that Jamie Bell would be playing TinTin (what an excellent choice) but then later disappointed that this would not be a third “live action” TinTin adventure like the two French/Belgian and French/Spain coproductions of the sixties, reviewed here (TinTin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece) and here (TinTin and the Blue Oranges). I was equally disappointed when I found that Spielberg and his co-producer Peter Jackson had chosen to adapt The Secret Of The Unicorn for their movie. This was not a story I knew... I wanted The Crab With The Golden Claws or, at the very least, my other favourite (if somehow strangely baffling when I was a kid) TinTin adventure, The Cigars of the Pharaohs.

My worries for the new “franchise” were further compounded when I finally saw the trailer to the new movie which, honestly, looked a tad alienating with its CGI characters and blistering barnacled pacing. It was a TinTin movie though... so there was no way I was going to miss this one. And you know what? I’m really glad I didn’t.

My first worry, that of the CGI, very quickly wore off soon after a stylish credits sequence covering “other” TinTin adventures, punctuated by Johnny Williams unusually orchestrated (for this kind of subject matter) title music, as the film-makers made a nice visual gag, post-credits, comparing the new CGI animated TinTin to the old comic album likeness which really helped me start to lose my barriers to the technique very early on. Yes, I realised as I was watching it that this was a cleverly concocted and blatantly deliberate visual ploy on Spielberg’s part to say “look it’s okay, this is still the proper TinTin we’re doing here” and that, as an audience member I should have perhaps felt a little more insulted by this than I actually did, but I have to say that the scene did it’s job... so I couldn’t knock it too hard if it worked.

My initial upset as to the adaptation soon crumbled also, as soon as I heard the word KARABOUDJAN! Yep, this was not just an adaptation of The Secret Of The Unicorn but also a cross-pollinated adaptation of, you guessed it, The Crab With The Golden Claws... and while a large amount of that story didn’t make it into the film (including the opium smuggling elements from which the original work got its name), there were enough large chunks from this to keep me mollified throughout the length of the film. It was, after all, the story where TinTin and Captain Haddock first met... and I’m glad to say that first meeting, including the TinTin’s storage room exit with his champagne cork booby trap, made it into the film unscathed... as did a lot of the dessert sequences and the seaplane.

The story also goes into Red Rackham’s Treasure towards the end of the movie, ready to jump into a sequel where we’ll presumably, finally, get to meet Professor Calculas (who is conspicuous in his absence from this film) and his brilliant and iconic shark submarine from the story in question. That’s gonna look good on screen... I remember seeing a lifesized replica of it at a TinTin exhibition at Greenwich Maritime Museum a few years back and it brought back a rush of memories.

Frankly though, I’m doing the film a little bit of a disservice by citing all these examples as being the main reason why I thoroughly enjoyed this particular cinematic concoction. The main reason is because this is a thrifty, entertaining piece of cinema executed with, mostly, good taste and a similar spirit to Spielberg and Lucas’ Indiana Jones adventures... not that I think they’re actually trying to follow that style consciously... it just so happens that the Indiana Jones adventures and the TinTin adventures are pretty much cut from the same cloth so the way in which the narrative style has been exploited and the musical treatment of these on-screen adventurers (by the same composer as it happens) was bound to give it a cinematic echo. It’s true that the action chase sequences have, perhaps, become a little more elaborate and “adrenalised” from what you’d expect to find in a TinTin strip... but you’re talking chalk and cheese here in terms of static panels versus 24 frames per second so you can hardly find fault with this quite legitimate approach to the action and it really doesn’t ever wander off into something which doesn’t retain the spirit of those original stories. And as such... succeeds legitimately and brilliantly as a coherent adaptation (or indeed extrapolation) of the text.

I have a couple of minor criticisms which I should probably mention, however. Three, in fact.

Number one is that I missed the little surreal sequences that occasionally used to turn up in TinTin. Specifically, stuff like the bizarre and almost horrifying vision of TinTin as a champagne bottle about to have his head “de-corked” by Captain Haddock with a massive corkscrew, for example. It think there was room to include the quirkier Hergé traits in the film.

Secondly, the film was perhaps just a bit too long and although the chase and action sequences were pretty good, the final one felt like it was going to lead into an even more spectacular, climactic action sequence and, instead, led into an overlong explanatory scene and set up to the next one, which felt a little like it outstayed its welcome just a bit too much. I think the film could maybe have done with some judicious pruning in places... but it’s hard to complain too much because they did get the mix just about right.

My third grumble is fast becoming a common one on the general state of the technology these days... the 3D wasn’t particularly special or outstanding in that it didn’t add anything to the movie and was, in my opinion, completely unnecessary. Could have done without that and the extra £1.50 added on to the ticket price. What a con!

Although the actual The Crab With The Golden Claws artefact itself wasn’t bedded into the main plot, a very strong visual allusion to this and other TinTin adventures are scattered throughout the movie to keep fans happy. Mr. Spielberg also gets a cameo in a passport photo which is hilarious... until the CGI version of the character appears in a later scene and perhaps overplays the joke just a little (and if I’m not mistaken, the CGI maestro Mr. John Williams is with him in one scene). But even with these slight criticisms, I have to say that The Adventures Of TinTin: The Secret Of The Unicorn was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Lots to recommend in this and, as importantly, it doesn’t betray the spirit of the original works. Go and see it on a big screen while you can.


  1. I didn't like the trailer at all. The style of animation turn me off to it. But on a rainy day stuck in a beach town with little choice in films, I saw it. And I really liked it. I was sucked in. And you didn't mention Snowy! Snowy stole the show for me. Yes, it was too long. When they got back to home port and started fist fighting again I said, 'What? Again? What more now?' The chase scene down the hillside town with the eagle was a lot of fun. Overall, was much better than expected and I'm recommending to everyone.

  2. Yeah... trailer didn't work for me either. I loved the movie though... although, I still prefer the first of the two live action ones from the 60s better.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment.