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

"The Adventures of Tintin"
DW Studios

"Tintin" will play as a Christmas holiday offering in the U.S.

First Tintin installment takes Steven Spielberg back to his fun-filled, visually splendid roots.

Steven Spielberg brings the slightly antique world of the famed European comic-book series to splendid, action-filled life as only he can.

LONDON — Serving up a good ol’ fashioned adventure flick that harkens back to the filmmaker’s action-packed, tongue-in-cheek swashbucklers of the 1980s, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a visually dazzling adaptation of the legendary – at least outside the US – comic book series by Belgian artist Herge. The first part of a trilogy produced by Spielberg and Peter Jackson, this kid-friendly thriller combines state-of-the-art 3D motion capture techniques with a witty, globe-trotting treasure hunt featuring the sleuthing boy reporter, his trusted fox terrier, and a cast of catchy side characters. Banking on the comics’ British and European fan base to build overseas momentum, Tintin will be released there late October, rolling out Stateside on December 21 just a few days prior to Spielberg’s War Horse.

Although only marginally popular in the States, Tintin is to many readers worldwide (especially in Western Europe and the UK) what Batman and Spider-Man are to Americans: a comic book they discovered as kids, grew up with and continue to cherish. The brainchild of Belgian illustrator Georges Remi (whose nom de plume was Herge), the Tintin comics – originally published in French between 1930 and 1976 – have grown over the years into a multinational franchise that includes translations in dozens of languages, various animated films and TV series, two live-action movies, several theme stores, a museum and even a field of study known as “Tintinology.”

That said, Tintin himself is far from your typical, butt-kicking crime fighter. The blond-haired, baby-faced journalist has no known superpowers, no clear age, no apparent love interests and he resides in Brussels, which is a far cry from Krypton. If anything, his erudite approach to solving mysteries, along with a taste for escapades in the Middle East, Asia and Africa throughout the mid-20th century, make him a less brawny, more European counterpart to Indiana Jones, which is purportedly what first sparked Spielberg’s interest in bringing Tintin to the screen back in the early 1980s.

It’s precisely the old-school exploits of the Jones films that the director and screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) have channeled here, transforming two of the 23 Tintin comics into a saga filled with captivating CGI action and clever sight gags, while maintaining a compact narrative that never takes itself too seriously. Such additions should help the film receive a warm welcoming across the Atlantic, although the franchise’s overseas renown more or less guarantees that international grosses will exceed domestic ones.

After an animated credit sequence with nods to both Saul Bass and Spielberg’s own Catch Me If You Can, we first meet Tintin (Jamie Bell) while he’s getting his portrait sketched by a Herge look-alike in an outdoor flea market. The drawing produced is the type of pared-down, thick-line illustration (a style known as the ligne claire) which was the artist’s trademark, and its contrast with the complex visual universe created by Jackson’s Weta Digital fx house shows how far animation techniques have come since the last century, although The Adventures of Tintin still manages to capture the winsome spirit of the original.

Along with his incredibly apt canine sidekick, Snowy, the reporter is quickly sucked into an intrigue involving a treasure lost at sea back in the 17th century, when a ship called The Unicorn was attacked by  a pirate vessel led by the infamous Red Rackham (Daniel Craig). Kidnapped by Rackham’s evil descendant, Sakharine (also played by Craig), Tintin is tossed on a steamer en route to the final piece of a puzzle that may reveal the treasure’s location, and which is hidden inside one of three models of the original Unicorn.

It’s on board that Tintin crosses paths with the film’s most colorful character, the scotch-guzzling, foul-mouthed – at least for an 8-year-old living in the 1940s –Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Offering up plenty of comic relief in comparison to Tintin’s straight-edged ways (one mark of Herge’s series is how little personality Tintin seems to have compared with everyone else), Haddock accompanies him throughout some of the movie’s more thrilling and humorous set-pieces, including a terrifically rendered flight across the ocean where the sailor manages to fuel an airplane with his own whisky-infused breath.

That sequence, as well as a dazzling flashback scene where past and present are intermingled with plenty of wit and digital splendor (most notably in an image of The Unicorn emerging from the sea and crashing, dreamlike, onto a row of sand dunes), showcase Spielberg’s talent for creating action that is less about bullets and bombs than in keeping things visually alive, introducing dozens of ideas in only a few shots. This is what makes Tintin an altogether more successful mocap experience than earlier efforts like The Polar Express, and the director (who operated the camera and is credited as “lighting consultant”) approaches the medium in a realistic way that’s also far from the epic worlds of Avatar, setting things in a past of lifelike artifacts and locations.

As the action moves from Europe to Morocco and back again, the pace is well maintained and the story never seems to overstay its welcome, which is not the case with many recent blockbusters. John Williams’ score, which mixes moody 60s-style music with the composer’s more grandiose themes, accompanies events up through the rather ingenious finale (involving a massive duel where shipping cranes are transformed into sabers), before a cliffhanger sets up the next installment (to be directed by Jackson).

If the mocap technique falls somewhere between live-action and animated moviemaking, the same goes for the performances, which are altogether fluid yet sometimes (especially in certain dialogue-heavy sequences) give the impression of watching a very realistic video game with the sound turned up a few thousand notches. Serkis (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings) nonetheless manages to turn Haddock into what will surely be the trilogy’s most memorable personage, while Bell (Billy Elliot) makes Tintin about as interesting as he can be, which is to say sometimes less so than his dog.

As the bumbling detective duo Thomson and Thompson, Edgar Wright regulars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg provide comic asides that will help adults stay in tune with material aimed at an audience younger than the teenage or twentysomething Tintin, even if this Belgian hero seems to be a model of PG behavior.

Opens: In UK (October 26), in US (December 21)

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Wingnut Films, Kennedy/Marshall, in association with Hemisphere Media Capital

Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Mays, Gad Elmaleh

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish

Based on the The Adventures of Tintin by: Herge

Producers: Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy

Executive producers: Ken Kamins, Nick Rodwell, Stephane Sperry

Music: John Williams

Visual effects and animation: Weta Digital Ltd.

Senior visual effects supervisor: Joe Letteri

Vfx, costume designer: Leslie Burkes-Harding

Editor: Michael Kahn

Rating: PG, 107 minutes