2011 can boast another brilliant children’s movie. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a delight, a roaring adventure full of the excitement of exotic travel, sea faring and sword play. That said the film certainly has the deck stacked in its favor. Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin has is beloved the world over, not to mention the pedigree of the movie’s director Steven Spielberg and it’s producer Peter Jackson. Tintin also has some solid talent in its writers Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced, director of Scott Pilgrim) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). It may a surprising list of writers credits for a Spielberg animated family film such as this one (without zombies, aliens or alien time-travellers), but Moffat, Wright and Cornish have crafted a lightening-paced story true to its roots in action and adventure comics, realized expertly by Spielberg and Jackson.
Tintin’s adventure begins somewhat unassumingly when he gets a good deal on a model ship in an open air market. It’s a replica of the great sailing ship the Unicorn, and immediately we discover that it’s more than it seems. Two men approach Tintin (Jamie Bell), including the sinister Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), trying to persuade him to sell but Tintin wont have it. During a fight between Tintin’s (smarter than your average) dog Snowy and a neighbor’s cat, the ship’s mast is broken and a small roll of parchment slips out. This is what Sakharine has been looking for. We follow intrepid, and seemingly extremely well paid young journalist, Tintin as he teases out the clues surrounding that parchment, meeting a motley cast of characters along the way. Including down on his luck Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and one unfortunate man whose only raison d’être is to warn Tintin that he is, in fact, in danger in every scene he pops up in. Other than this one strange character, the supporting crew is surprisingly entertaining and well drawn. Scenes with the two bumbling policemen, Thompson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), feature downright inspired physical comedy never mind that we’re watching pixels and not people.
That is to say, the use of 3-D in Tintin is the best I’ve seen yet. The 3-D is so successful in part because it is understated. So many movies use 3-D as a gimmick, something akin to smell-o-vision in the way it’s used to draw moviegoers in like a carnival barker. In Tintin, 3-D is used simply to give the animated characters another layer of depth, making Tintin’s world that much more vibrant. Spielberg gleefully plays with the medium, creating expansive action set pieces that only occasionally descend into the ridiculous. One exceedingly long action sequence sends Tintin, Snowy and Haddock racing down a mountain on a motorbike in an exotic locale, staying one step ahead of a racing flood from a broken dam. It’s a spectacular scene, but one that sags from being a little bit overlong. On the other hand, the retelling of Captain Haddock’s seafaring ancestor’s final bloody battle is completely riveting and is full of the wonder and joy of imaginary play, and I found myself wanting to see more.
The Adventures of Tintin is really a work of love on the part of its director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson. And it is chock full of the old simpler-times goodness about which certain adults love to reminisce (He does research at the library! He’s into model shipbuilding!). And it is wonderful to see a male role-model who not only does his homework, but who can handle himself in a fistfight. In that way the character of Tintin has a wonderful boy scout charm. No doubt he knows how to tie a mean half-hitch.
I have to admit that I’m unfamiliar with Hergé’s original Tintin. Beyond having to translate a few panels in high school French class I haven’t had much more exposure than that. Which will, I believe, put me firmly in the majority of American audience members for this film. But even though I watched Tintin as a ‘newbie’, the character, the story, and the action is exceedingly familiar: The Adventures of Tintin is exactly what a young Indiana Jones adventure should be. Secrets discovered, goofy and elaborate action set pieces, characters standing appropriately in awe of history and legend, explosive punches; these are all par for the course in both franchises. Although it would be difficult to see Henry Jones Jr. as played by River Phoenix in Last Crusade musing aloud to his plucky dog companion. The line separating the two seems to be drawn at the normative intelligence of animals (or maybe, in Tintin’s case, the ability of an alcoholic’s burp to power an engine). Spielberg himself reportedly said that he saw Tintin as an Indiana Jones for kids. If that is true, then Spielberg has very much succeeded to that end and adults who harbour nostalgia for all things Indiana Jones will be satisfied enough that this is the prequel we wish we had when we were younger. While today’s younger crowd will be thrilled by the epic swordfighting and Snowy’s adorable yips and grumbles. With such quality children’s entertainment like The Muppets, Hugo and now The Adventures of Tintin, how can any parent subject their child to another Chipmunks movie?