My notes on the Spielberg/Hergé movie.
I learned to read with The Secret of the Unicorn, one of Hergé’s Tintin albums – it was a few years and many re-readings (I especially loved the pirate flashback) before I got to part two of the story, Red Rackham’s Treasure. I wonder if the filmmakers didn’t have the same experience because (though some set-up is tipped in from The Crab With the Golden Claws) the entire second half of the plot (ostensibly the more exciting bit) is skipped because enough action scenes have been delivered to make for a satisfying thrill-ride. Over the years, there have been many attempts at doing Tintin in animation (I remember a TV version in the 1960s, narrated urgently by Paul Frees) and live action (some BFI blu-rays of ‘60s adventures are now out) but this is plainly going to reinvent the franchise for a new generation, if it clicks with audiences. It’s mo-cap 3D animation, which means that the characters can approximate photo-realist versions of Hergé’s characters – with beaky noses, distinctive moustaches and round eyes – without having to stick make-up on real actors who just can’t look like toons. Purists might object to some aspects – like the Scots accent Andy Serkis does as Captain Haddock – but it’s a fond, imaginative use of the material and wonderfully realised in its creation of Hergé’s 1930s-1950s world, as detailed and loving in its art direction as The Illusionist, My Dog Tulip or Wallace and Gromit.
The plot hook is that Tintin (Jamie Bell) buys one of three model ships which contain clues that add up to the location of Red Rackham’s Treasure, and he has to cope with villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and his bipolar drunk ally Haddock (Serkis, who has a few serious beats about ruinous alcoholism) as the chase runs all over his home city (which is Brussels or London, depending), the derelict Marlinspike Hall, the high seas, the Sahara Desert and the kingdom of Bagghar (which is pretty much wrecked by a terrific chase involving a trained falcon). Snowy/Milou doesn’t have a voice-over thought process, but is plainly smarter than the average dog … Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are okay as Thompson and Thomson, but less fun than Toby Jones as the pickpocket kleptomaniac who conveniently collects wallets … and Professor Calculus is absent, perhaps because Steven Spielberg already had John Hurt play a lookalike boffin in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which was perhaps also influenced by Hergé’s Flight 714). Scripted by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (don’t you just love the distinction between and and ampersand?), with mostly tactful lifts from the originals, and a few nods to other adventures. The story is a string of pearls, rushing from one Spielbergian 3D rollercoaster to the next – and the semi-animation format sells ridiculous yet thrilling gambits like the seaplane tumbling into the desert and a wildly fantastical pirate sea battle flashback.
It resists the temptation to tamper with the franchise, to the extent of reproducing the curious sexlessness which now seems the oddest aspect of the saga – the only significant female character is the matronly diva Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel), whose high notes shatter bulletproof glass (she doesn’t sing her signature tune, the Jewel Song from Faust, though). The key relationships are between Tintin and Snowy and Tintin and Haddock, contrasting the intrepid fidelity of the hound with the feckless drunken wrath of the old salt. Some of the albums are far more fantastical – with science fiction elements – but it was probably wise to start off with one of the more down-to-earth adventures, with a human villain rather than giant mushrooms and some crowded urban environments rather than the moon or a lost Aztec city. It risks falling into an ‘interesting, but …’ hole with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow rather than founding a lasting film franchise, but at least it retains the integrity of the material.