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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Coming soon to the blog are reviews of some very notable films over the next couple of weeks; the final part of my roundup of DC Comics' New 52 initiative and a look back at 2011 in film and, perhaps (I haven't decided yet) in comics. For now though, here are some thoughts on Spielberg's eagerly anticipated Tintin adaptation. 

Also at Channel24



What it's about

Tintin, a young investigative journalist sets off on an adventure to find a sunken ship and the treasure that went down with it.

What we thought

The ingredients for a top notch Tintin movie are all very much in place. Produced by Peter Jackson, directed by Stephen Spielberg and written by some of the hottest new British screenwriting talent around in Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Steven Moffat (Dr Who) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World), it has more A-grade talent behind it than any other film this year. Add to that a very impressive group of motion-capture (sorry sorry, performance-capture) actors - including Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones, Cary Elwes, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and, the king of mo-cap himself, Andy Serkis - and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn should be one of this year's most spectacular blockbusters.

Oh, if only...


It's true, with that level of talent involved, there was no way that the film could possibly be anything less than a proficient piece of cinema but the truly shocking thing about this long-awaited adaptation is that it's not a whole lot more than that. In a year when films like Super 8 and Real Steel have served as constant reminders of just how incredible Steven Spielberg is at his best, it's disheartening to see the man himself deliver a film that has so little of that same magic.

Of course, at first sight Tintin does look like vintage Spielberg. It's a full-blooded adventure film that harkens back to the glory days of the earlier Indiana Jones films, and his ability to direct a frantic action scene with both flare and clarity is as alive and well as ever. Plus, this being an animated film, he even gets to try out new tricks that makes magnificent use of the form – it's almost worth watching the film just for the creative ways in which he transitions between different locations and from present to past.

Dig just a little bit deeper though and the film's many problems become readily apparent. Using three entirely different Tintin adventures on which to base the film might have been a necessary move (though Herge's comics do strike me as far more dense than their American counterparts) but the result is something of a narrative mess. There is so much plot that Spielberg has trouble letting the film breathe as it lurches from action set piece to expository info dumps, never allowing the viewer a chance to truly connect with what's going on on screen. The script too never comes close to reflecting any of these writers at their best either, coming in short on both innovation and wit.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is Tintin himself. Jamie Bell is a very fine actor and he does his best with what is in the end a rather thankless role. As has been pointed out by far more knowledgeable Herge fans than I, in the original comics, Tintin was always meant to be something of a cypher – rather than being much of a character, he was instead there as a blank canvas on which the reader could effectively project themselves. Even visually, aside for his signature haircut, Tintin's face has none of the expressiveness or character of his many supporting players. This works great on paper but on screen, Tintin comes across as a bit of a bore – and a rather smug one at that.

And then there is the issue of the film's animation. It's certainly true that the art design and background animation is pretty spectacular but the characters themselves – especially, once again, Tintin – suffer from something that has yet to be sorted out with mo-cap animation: in an attempt to make these characters look like flesh and blood, they create something truly grotesque by never quite getting there. It's called the uncanny valley (Google it) and it undermines all the great work that Spielberg and the team at WETA Digital have done with the rest of the film.

In a way, this is pretty symptomatic of what is wrong with the film. By coming so close to reaching greatness and yet crucially failing to ever reach it, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn becomes more and more disappointing as it progresses. Despite the obvious good intentions and effort put into it, this is middling Spielberg: perfectly watchable, even enjoyable, but ultimately empty and forgettable.

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