SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


*This review may contain spoilers swimming in the Red Sea - watch before reading*

I read the other day that Hergé's favourite Tintin book for many years used to be The Secret of the Unicorn, until he wrote Tintin in Tibet and this took pride of place. Tintin in Tibet has always been my personal favourite of all the Tintin books, and The Secret of the Unicorn falls some way behind. As an occasionally obsessive Tintin fan; as a one-time frequenter of a secret little Tintin shop somewhere around London's Covent Garden for many formative years, I can't say The Secret of the Unicorn had as much off-the-wall fun for me as some of the other, odder, Tintin adventures, especially: The Seven Crystal Balls/ Prisoners of the Sun (down inside the tombs of the Incas with curses, sacrifice and sacrilege all round), The Crab With The Golden Claws (Tintin does Lawrence of Arabia) and The Shooting Star (falling fragments of meteorite, giant spiders chasing Snowy and the wonderful exploding mushrooms - an iconic image from the books, should exploding mushrooms ever be able to be called iconic).
But Tintin in Tibet, written when Hergé was: suffering from a marriage breakdown, finding new love with a young artist working at his studio, slowly recovering from a breakdown, fending off accusations (false) of being a Nazi sympathizer - and constantly suffering from nightmares filled with visions of a world of pure whiteness, remains the only Tintin book I have to (need to) go back and revisit on a regular basis.
Tintin's search for the missing Chang in the mystical sparseness of the Himalayas in Tintin in Tibet was an obvious 'personal journey' for the writer as well as reader, and the long trek through thick clogging snow and echoing uncertainty all around to eventual freedom, friendship and spiritual renewal - for Hergé - proved to be a turning point in his life. It didn't much matter whether the Yeti turned up before the end of the book or not, even though he did.

There have been many adaptations of the Tintin books over the years - some live action and some animated. The live action movies I've always found utterly weird and somehow a bit wrong, in the same way Robin Williams in 1980's Popeye movie was also kind of bizarre. And sort of wrong. If kind of good. Popeye as he appeared in the cartoons, however - always seemed entirely plausible. The Adventures of Tintin, an acclaimed animated TV series filmed in 1991, is still essential viewing for any Tintin fanatic; lovingly realised and faithful to the books. Some will look to Herge's Adventures of Tintin from 1962 as the definitive screen incarnation, with 5 minute instalments and those big dramatic, deep-voiced introductions of: 'HERGE'S .. ADVENTURES .. OF TINTIN...!!' at the start.
These adaptations differed wildly from the actual books and angered some fans, but are still fondly remembered. It's a rule of Hergé that no new Tintin stories can be written in his name. Which doesn't stop filmmakers from chopping up the stories and adding them together, as Stephen Spielberg has done with his new film of The Secret of the Unicorn.

The latest movie isn't exactly faithful to the complete original book it is based upon, but does follow the basic plotline (big spoiler follows): the search for model ships containing hidden treasure maps to make one big map that reveals the location of treasure lost when a descendant of Tintin's pal Captain Haddock fought the pirate Red Rackham at sea - and a final twist of a reveal that the treasure was hidden in the family estate all along.

Spielberg had the gestation of a plan to direct a Tintin movie nearly 30 years ago, but it was kept on near permanent hold. He ditched the live action he wanted to realise the movie as (seemingly because Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson apparently persuaded him this approach wouldn't work) but there's a compromise: The Secret of the Unicorn is not an entirely animated movie, but a 'mostly animated' one, with, according to Spielberg - 15% live action compared to the 85% CGI (or 'motion capture' as it's more accurately known).
This results in a strange look that takes some getting used to - but it's still not as damn strange as that Popeye movie, that I never get used to. With a script from Stephen Moffat (who had to leave his initial script for others to finish after the chance to produce Doctor Who came up in the UK, leaving Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (of Adam and Joe fame) to finish what he had started. It's all a bit of a mish-mash of Tintin adventures, focusing mainly on the two parts of the original Hergé adventures: The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, as well as the moment Tintin meets ship drunkard Captain Haddock (held prisoner by drug smugglers from The Crab with the Golden Claws) and the desert chase from Land of Black Gold.

I think this mixing up of stories is a shame; it shows a casual, commercial, rather uncaring attitude towards the original stories - like they are random clips on YouTube being dragged together to make one big beast. I think it's also a shame that the 1991-filmed, far less flashy animated adventures can be so good, faithful and respectful to the man who made memories come alive and infused so many children with dreams of adventures, friendship and, well, exploding mushrooms - while Spielberg 'cops out'.
Also, the excitement we may feel in watching a favourite book made real on the screen, is deflated like a big fat balloon when we get to re-read the original book and discover that it's something of a chopped up experience. I feel sorry for kids today buying The Secret of the Unicorn book only to discover that - in reality - there's a lot missing, when really, it's the big screen adventure that's sadly lacking.
Which isn't to say Spielberg's vision isn't a lot of fun, very well made and well worth seeing. It's all of these, and any concerns are more niggling than disastrous. The film is shot in 3D. I read that Spielberg usually shoots movies with one eye closed to envisage the 2D we will be watching in, but for his 3D Tintin project, he kept both eyes open. The 3D works well and best when we get setpiece effects such as the just-shattered shards of glass spinning towards us after Bianca Castiafore's singing breaks the sound barrier. (A note on this: many lesser directors would have the voice really attempt to break the sound barrier. Not Spielberg. When Castiafore's voice reaches the highest note, there is a slight fade in volume instead, and cuts to shots outside the music hall - cleverer, and less annoying, than the usual kid's cacophonous fare.)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is fast-moving and suitably adventurous from the start (if a bit too long and talky for fidgety younger fans in the cinema, I soon noticed) and has many scenes to make walking encyclopedias of all things Tintin go: 'Oh yeah, that's so and so who appeared in the story...' or even 'Oh wow, that's probably a reference to ...'. In other words: Tintin geeks are more than catered for here!
There's also a nice scene where Tintin meets one of those street artists that specialises in caricatures, and all the drawings behind him are of various characters from the Tintin books. The artist looks like Hergé himself. Of course, the 1991 TV animated series did much the same thing, having an animated Hergé appear in every episode in a Hitchcock-esque cameo. The opening credits are also a Tintin fan's wet dream with covers of pretty much every story book drifting across the screen. 

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Frustratingly, the most exciting moment of the book Red Rackham's Treasure, is ignored: the search for the treasure in the fantastic shark-submarine invented by Professor Calculus (who doesn't even appear in this movie) and which (along with exploding mushrooms) is one of the most famous of Tintin memories ever drawn. I don't think that, for many Tintin fans, this omission is easily shrugged off - and by all accounts is unlikely to be included in future movies (the next instalment is set to be directed by Peter Jackson with the script in the trusted hands of Anthony Horowitz).
Maybe Spielberg is scared of sharks - or of the impact they had on his career. Would an animated sequence of shark terror ruin the memory of one of the greatest and most terrifying movies ever made? Perhaps even dabbling in the world of Tintin isn't worth such a career gamble.
Spielberg's direction oozes with expected class and confidence. Especially good are the transitional shots between scenes; a boat lost at sea becomes a blot on a puddle on a busy street, and the crevices of a hand become the dunes of the Sahara. The action sequences are possibly the most, hey - 'animated' and exciting of any other kind of animated film, ever. And a scene involving Snowy's chase of the van that contains a captured Tintin is a masterpiece of on-the-move tension and tracking worthy of Hitchcock. Brian De Palma. Or - well - how about just Spielberg? Other stand-outs include the lifeboat dangling in mid-air and falling to the sea in glorious 3D effectiveness; a scene which was preceded by a quite heart-clenching chase (Tintin vs 'The Thick-Faced Villains') across decks.

Of the cast, Jamie Bell is captivating, enigmatic, and suitably bemused (deliberately so - a really nice touch) as Tintin, but Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock I thought didn't quite work - wasn't quite 'salty' enough. This is probably unfair - the character is still wonderful and charismatic and lots of fun, just not quite a Haddock, for me anyway. But who could capture such an ingrained-in-the-memory character and not submit to outright caricature?
To Serkis's credit, he never does submit to the threat of caricature - it's very much a fresh take on an established role, while not distancing himself from the Haddock we all know and love. Daniel Craig as villain Ivanovich Sakharine is fine, but not too memorable, while Simon Pegg as Inspector Thompson is fabulous. But it's Jamie Bell's show.
The film is made by people who obviously love Tintin and Spielberg has held on to the rights for the last thirty years for a reason - ever since being told that Indiana Jones is very much a Tintin-esque character he has been wanting to shoot the movie version of the classic comic strip. There's a nod to this connection in a great scene where Tintin slides towards the propeller of an airplane, in much the same way we had 'propeller' splatter in a memorable scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The 'Spielberg Greatest Hits' moments don't end there - in a way, this movie is Spielberg going back to his roots; an almost autobiographical purge of all the reasons why Spielberg is no longer the essential name on every film fan's tongue-wagging in recent years. Spielberg's last directed movie was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; a not entirely successful reboot of the franchise. This year we have Tintin - followed by War Horse and Lincoln and the rather fabulous-sounding Robopocalypse coming our way in 2013. (Note: Since writing this review, Robopocalypse has been postponed and Spielberg is set to direct Indiana Jones 5 and The BFG as well as produce The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun - all in 2016!)
Watch closely in Tintin and you get to see the young man swimming under the water with only his hair visible like a shark's fin - a blatant reminder of Spielberg's masterpiece, Jaws. Ironically so, because, as discussed earlier, sharks feature heavily in the original Red Rackham book, including a stunning moment where Tintin is menaced by sharks in his hunt for the treasure; but not here - in Spielberg's movie there is only the fleeting, almost embarrassed, glimpse of shark in a tank. Even the TV animated series showed Tintin's helmeted head stuck between shark's teeth!
The Spielbergian references (or sometimes deliberate avoidance) to his film oeuvre, or to himself, don't stop there. The man himself appears on a passport photo and there's more than a resemblance of Captain Quint (the shark battling salty old sea dog from Jaws) in Captain Haddock - a more noticeable resemblance considering who the director is here, that may not be considered otherwise.
During Tintin's (outstandingly shot) rollercoaster freefall through city buildings at the end of the movie, I couldn't help noticing some resemblance between Spielberg and chief bad guy (and descendant of Red Rackham) - Ivanovich Sakharine in the film's climatic scene (where Sakharine battles Haddock at the dock following an Indiana Jones-worthy car chase through city streets and scrambling near-falls over a patchwork of rooftops). It's a rollercoasting tumble of vertigous proportions - just like a similar tumble down the mines in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.


During some of the more life-threatening, edge-of-the-seat and rather nastier moments of the movie (and there are quite a few - including a doorway shooting with plenty of splattered blood in sight) and after the odd terrible fall from a great height; a little girl aged about seven laughed uproariously in a seat nearby, in the same way that I remember Spielberg captured my imagination as a boy (under the guise of a PG/A rated movie) as Jaws chomped down on innocent swimmers in flourishes of red bubbles and Indiana Jones shut his eyes tight as the Ark was opened and one of the most horrible fates I have ever witnessed in the history of cinema befalls bad guy Beloq and the Nazis standing alongside him.
Spielberg knows that all the best wonder in a child's mind is laced with occasional fright; like all the best and grimmest fairy tales in the world. Tintin, in the best Spielberg tradition, treats adult and child as one, and never lets up.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a whole lot of fun - it's like being told a great story by someone who knows and loves storytelling, rather than someone telling tales second hand that don't quite ring true. Spielberg's best movies are those that you feel you can snuggle up to in front of a camp fire while eating a marshmallow on a stick in the dark and thoroughly enjoy. If the climatic battle at the end of this movie between Haddock and his nemesis isn't symbolic in some way of Spielberg regaining his spark (or thrill of the chase), then I hold up my hand for arrest by Thompson and Thompson. But there was a time that Hergé too walked off into the snowy heights of the Himalayas to find himself, through the eyes of a young reporter on a page. It didn't matter back then whether the Yeti turned up or not. To Spielberg, it probably doesn't matter all that much whether the shark ever turns up in this one either.

words: mark gordon palmer

Tintin is © HERGÉ / Moulinsart

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