At long last the big screen, motion-captured iteration of Tintin, from director-producer superteam Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, is with us. Who better to capture the essence of Hergé’s genial adventures than the combined directors of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings? This film, full title The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, draws together three of the original Tintin stories and sets up (box office permitting) a Peter Jackson-directed sequel.
It hardly seems worth worrying about the box office credentials of this film. It will do very well, and the sequel will almost certainly follow. Thankfully, Spielberg’s opening foray into the timeless world of Hergé’s amiable hero does enough to whet our appetite for a second, even if it’s far from perfect.
We are introduced to our iconic young journalist hero in a warm, charming opening which throws in a delightful nod to the source material. At the same time we acquaint ourselves with the all-important and much-discussed visuals, which are realistic but subtly stylised. More on those in a moment.
Tintin finds a model ship on a market stall and immediately attracts the interest of several suspicious individuals. He’s warned that ownership of the diminutive vessel will put his very life in danger. Accompanied by his faithful dog Snowy, Tintin sets out to unravel the secret of the ship, even if he doesn’t understand quite how badly it is desired by unseen parties. From here, the mystery balloons into an adventure narrative and the pace picks up.
The general quality of the visuals is impressive. Most of the motion-captured character movements are very well done, and the lip-syncing is generally solid. Character designs are strong, too, and bring Hergé’s deceptively simple drawings to life. Tintin himself was always a relatively blank canvas visually speaking, and thankfully he is designed here with just enough life to make him pleasant company. Jamie Bell’s vocal performance aids the animators in this regard, instilling him with just the right amount of boyish enthusiasm. Other memorable characters such as Captain Haddock (mo-cap veteran Andy Serkis) and Thompson and Thomson (played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are brought to life with similarly effective charm. The latter two are present mainly for comic relief (as in the original stories), while Haddock plays a more central role in the narrative, Andy Serkis growling his drunken Scottish accent effectively.
This is Steven Spielberg’s first fully-animated picture, and he clearly enjoyed the freedoms the medium can bring. He frequently lets loose with his digital toy box, conjuring grandiose fades and cutaways that work through their sheer exuberance. At times it feels like he had almost too much fun playing, though, and forgot to tighten things up. The film feels undisciplined at times, bookending interesting narrative scenes with fantastical action. A scene in a North African town erupts into an expansive and thrilling, but also convoluted and dizzying, action spectacle. In fact, the film is quite heavy on action, a little more than was perhaps needed (there are shades of Indiana Jones at times), and the pace could have been slowed to make room for more character moments. When Spielberg cuts loose it can be to thrilling effect (an intercut sequence flitting between a desert and a sea battle is a standout) but it can also draw less welcome results. The final action set-piece at a dock is disappointing, and it steers the story to a slightly underwhelming conclusion.
Similarly, the visuals are occasionally inconsistent. Some scenes (particularly those set in the North African palace) look comparatively unfinished compared to those around them. Another month in post could’ve helped those scenes reach the same high standards as the rest. The 3D is passable, managing not to dilute the lovely colour palette too much, but it adds very little to the spectacle.
On occasion the script lumbers Jamie Bell with a little too much Snowy-directed rhetoric. This may be in keeping with the comics, but what works on the page doesn’t quite translate to the screen. That is a minor quibble, though; in general the script is tight, the performances are strong, and most of the comic beats hit successfully. The ending, which introduces the story for the sequel, isn’t particularly exciting. It feels like an unnecessary extension of this film’s self-contained narrative, but the details of the story told in the original comics have faded from my mind, and the next film will hopefully combine the right source material to create a ripping yarn.
Spielberg has done a good job of setting up Tintin’s out-of-time universe for Peter Jackson to attempt to better him in a couple of years’ time. This film has its flaws, but the prospect of a sequel is one that should be warmly received. A tighter focus on the investigative aspects of the story, some more character beats, and maybe even some female chara cters, should help Jackson create a more rounded follow-up, but this is worth the price of entry for a family adventure and to spend some time with some a lovable cast of characters.