On Thursday night in Belgium I watched The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. Tintin was important to my younger self and is Belgian, so this was a can’t-miss. I enjoyed it a whole lot, but I worry that some Tintinistas will see a betrayal of the franchise.
What accounts for the considerable charm of the Tintin books? I think the key things are the oddly flat but still pleasing coloring, the strong visual composition of each frame, the lovable if one-dimensional cast of characters, and the hurtling although fanciful action-packed plots. On the evidence, the filmmakers agreed with that list.
Representation · Perhaps the film’s boldest stroke is in representing Hergé’s not-terribly-realistic penmanship with a sort of semi-CGI; the characters are three-dimensional and have remarkably human skin and features, but are obviously constructs. The first few minutes unsettled me, but I was soon won over. It helps that the opening credits are accompanied by a sort of mini-Tintin episode, all silhouettes, which is 100% direct visual homage to Hergé.
This is where I may part company with other Tintin fanciers. It would have been perfectly possible to do the film in a style much closer to the original, and I suspect many would have preferred that. It might have worked, but I think the approach they chose is just fine.
Composition · I saw the film in a huge modern theater with a gigantic curved screen; plus I was in the very front row. Practically every frame is a treat for the eyes. Tintin and Captain Haddock will be doing a scene in the left third, but the rest of the screen is full of lovingly rendered oceanscape or Arab city. Then we’ll get a close-up of the Captain splashed across 75 feet of screen, and it’s obvious that every inch of picture has received careful attention.
People · The film omits only Prof. Calculus from the regular cast. Hergé’s characters are not notably more three-dimensional than the ink-on-paper representing them, so I suppose it’s not a terribly huge compliment to say that the film gets them right. I think they did an especially good job with Tintin himself, giving him a lot more personality than Hergé’s page had room for.
Thomson and Thompson are solid, Snowy/Milou is great if perhaps not quite fuzzy enough, Captain Haddock loads of fun, and Bianca Castafiore perfect. Some may be disturbed that she sings beautifully; the gag becomes Snowy and the Captain hating it while everyone else is smiling. I think that’s just fine, because bad opera on the pages of a comic is funny, but having to listen to it in a film wouldn’t really work.
Lights, Camera, Action · It’s been a few years since I read The Secret of the Unicorn, but my impression is that the story in the movie is pretty well just like in the book, only more so. Now, there is considerable visual subtlety, particularly in some of the old-house interior scenes; also loads of love for first-half-of-the-last-century decor and tools and clothes. But the action sequences are at the center of the film (just as they are at the center of the books), and they’re totally, ridiculously, outrageously over-the-top.
So much so that on occasion, I found myself thinking “What a stupendous effect” as opposed to just being carried along by the story. Having said that, the filmmakers were plainly having so much fun with this that it’d feel ungenerous not to join in. And on a few occasions I found myself laughing out loud at the pure visual wit.
Wrapping Up · I can’t say there were zero gripes: At one point, there’s this stupid set-piece where Tintin gets all discouraged and Captain Haddock gives him a win-one-for-the-gipper motivational speech that just drips with lame-ass cliché. But that’s really all that comes t mind.
I mostly loathed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings; but in this case Spielberg and Jackson have brought a piece of my childhood to life on the screen and it’s pretty well all smiles. Good on ’em.