I was feeling a bit queasy about going to see the new Tintin film, having read some decidedly mixed reviews, including a couple which lambasted it as a downright travesty, a horrible descration of Hergé’s widely beloved, and painstakingly executed comic book series. I’m a big fan of Tintin, twice over: once as a child, when I loved the books for their vibrancy, wit and invention and then again as an adult, when I could better appreciate Hergé’s skill and care as a graphic artist and his skill at convincingly placing his realistically flawed and human protagonists into exotic, but always meticulously well-researched, locations. Tintin first appeared in the 1920s as a serialised cartoon strip running in a Belgian newspaper, and while the early stories were somewhat basic, both in terms of draughtsmanship and plot, it wasn’t too long before Hergé was rolling out sophisticated, intriguing yet entirely accessible adventures and mysteries that commented on geo-political issues of the day and also served to sympathetically introduce a young audience to other societies and cultures. In later years the books became less and less frequent as the author spent more and more time and resources on getting both the overall stories and the individual panels as perfect as he could possibly get them. It was worth it – his albums from the 50s and 60s like The Calculus Affair, Tintin In Tibet and The Castefiore Emerald have the richness of great novels or films.
Efforts to bring Tintin to the screen have never been very satisfying. Up until recently, film-makers had the choice between attempting live action, which would lose much of the charm and precision of the books, and traditional animation, which would always carry the risk of just being an exercise in filling in the missing frames between the carefully selected points in the story that Hergé chose to render as panels. Nowadays, however, the tools of the trade have evolved to the point where big-name directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (who gets a producer’s credit here) can achieve a middle way: via extensive motion-capture technology, it’s now possible to produce something that looks “real” but is populated by characters who closely resemble those seen on the printed page (as I understand it, it involves filming real actors who are wearing sensors at strategic points of their bodies and then generating animated on-screen characters via computers which have analysed the actors’ movements). I first saw this type of technique used in the film of Beowulf a few years ago, where it just looked odd – you could recognise the actors, like Anthony Hopkins, but they looked liked they’d been wrapped in clingfilm – but in this film, it kind of works, once you get used to it.
As the title suggests, the film is more or less an adaptation of The Secret Of The Unicorn, which came out in 1943, but it also contains quite a few elements from a previous album, The Crab With The Golden Claws, which have presumably been included because the events of Unicorn take place entirely within Belgium, and the Middle East set sections of Claws provide an opportunity to “open out” the action a little. This cavalier mixing and matching of the source material may be one reason why the film has met with a snooty reception in some quarters, but I don’t have a problem with it, as the movie’s plot, which does make significant alterations to that of the book, seems as logical and thought-through as any you’re likely to come across in a Hollywood blockbuster. Said plot concerns a mystery bound up with three models of a 17th Century sailing ship, The Unicorn, which various shady parties are trying to obtain. Tintin starts to investigate, like a plucky young journalist should, and uncovers a connection between The Unicorn and a drunk and defeatist ship’s captain called Haddock that he encounters on a boat headed for the Gulf states. The story whips along at a fair pace, although it seems a lot more focussed in the early stages when Tintin starts his sleuthing in his home town than in the inevitable setpiece action sequences that occur later. The tone of the film is not too dissimilar to that of the Indiana Jones films (not surprising, given the director), or 1970s comedy crime capers like The Pink Panther films, and like those films Tintin is really pretty enjoyable once you let yourself relax into it. The storytelling is clear and uncluttered, the characters are well-defined and often pleasantly eccentric, there are many witty touches, not all of which are derived from the books, and while I bemoan some of the unfunny comedy (anything to do with The Thompson Twins) and the regrettable decision to give Captain Haddock an on-message character arc it really could have been a lot worse. I mean, imagine if they’d given Tintin a back story. Or a love interest.