Review: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

(Steven Spielberg, 2011, USA)

Bridging the gap between 2008’s patchy (but fun) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and next year’s potential Oscar darling War Horse, director Steven Spielberg and producing partner Peter Jackson present what is evidently the first in a long-awaited line of franchise outings: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn; a fully-fledged motion capture romp in the vain of Spielberg’s cherished whip-cracking Jones series. Translating Belgian novelist Hergé’s much loved series of comic books to the big screen for the first time, Spielberg and Jackson, along with screenwriters Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, have sculpted a zesty, visually appealing but narratively squat action adventure that appeals to the masses but hides behind its outwardly immersive gleam and pithy nostalgia.

A jumbled blend of three plucky original adventures (The Crab with the Golden Claws, Red Rackham’s Treasure and Secret of the Unicorn), this big screen version, like its Indy exemplars, is a globetrotting jigsaw puzzle that sees its assorted protagonists striving to piece together it’s diverting clues whilst fending off adversaries with minimal motivations past personal gain. Ivan Sakharine, the films villain (played by Daniel Craig) is an austere, velvety opponent out for revenge, though he lacks the type of dastard memorability needed to give the film that crucial source of threat. He has the requisite moustache, though it is left relatively untwirled.

True to form, Spielberg eases us into the computer-generated world and its inhabitants whilst surging the story along at breakneck speed, introducing characters through incident and inquisition. This maintains an energetic pace that rarely lets up and gets straight to the fundamentals of Hergé’s protagonists; dedicated journalist cum quiffed intrepid explorer Tintin is portrayed with wiry exuberance by Jamie Bell, while ‘mocap’ regular Andy Serkis brings Captain Haddock’s woozy, sozzled and emotionally unbalanced persona to life. Yet as animated as they may be, they are ultimately let down by the pervasive drawbacks of the motion-capture technology, where characters walk around in humanistic bodies but lack a distinguishable life behind the eyes. No amount of expressive facial features and life-like hair movement can make up for their glossed-over gaze, and though it is perhaps the finest example of the equipment, unlike most of Robert Zemeckis’s current productivity (namely the unintentionally eerie Tom Hanks vehicle The Polar Express (2004)), its emotional core is commandeered.

Making up for narrative poignancy, Tintin plays host to a number of sensationally imaginative and, most importantly, cartoonish action sequences that pay homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Last Crusade (1989) as much as they break their own noteworthy ground. The film’s best scene plays out in flashback aboard a duo of sparring ships at rough sea, conveying all the swash and buckle that the Pirates series trades for more bang for the buck novelty. Similarly, a frantic dash down a bursting Moroccan dam is punchy and vigorous, though undermined by an anticlimactic crane duel precluding the films laidback, exasperated open-ended dénouement that clearly flags a sequel.

Containing all the reliable elements of a typical Spielberg product, including a melodic though unshowy John Williams score that smacks of his smooth, jazzy composition for Catch Me If You Can (2002), most notably in the playful opening credits sequence, The Adventures of Tintin is a handsomely conceived and well-intentioned caper that ticks boxes, but is let down by a misplaced heart that leaves the audience’s journey through the dynamic one-liners, slapstick comedy and white-knuckle thrills emotionally unscathed.

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