The Adventures of Tintin: Blistering Entertainment

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
U; Adventure, Comic Book Adaptation
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Rating:  * * *  1/2 (out of 5)

Sacrilege has never been this entertaining.

I should explain. Having been a Tintin fanatic since the age of 8, it's safe to say that the day I went to watch The Adventures of Tintin (about three weeks ago) was my cinematic Christmas-come-early. Finally, after years of praying for a good screen adaptation of my favourite comic of all time and months of fanboy discussions, here I was, watching a big budget feature film directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, no less.

Admittedly, I had some reservations. The early trailers hadn't been extremely impressive. I found the animation a little awkward and not realistic enough; the overall tone seemed far too self-serious and overly dramatic. I questioned the usage of 3D motion-capture as an aesthetic choice for adapting Belgian artist Herge's detailed clear-line drawings. Most of all, I agreed with a critic friend who remarked that Spielberg's Tintin bore some resemblance to British actress Tilda Swinton.

A few hours before the screening, I devoured the three Tintin issues -- The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure -- I knew this movie was based on. The screenplay, written by Steven Moffat (of Sherlock, Coupling and Doctor Who fame) along with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, deftly mixes and matches elements of these three books to create a representative story that embodies the spirit of the adventures of spirited young reporter/adventurer Tintin (Bell) and gruff, alcoholic seadog Captain Haddock (Serkis).

So, the question is, how good or bad is it? There are enough reasons for purists to hate this film. There is the somewhat questionable decision of making Ivan Sakkharine (Craig) -- an extremely minor character who has all of five minutes worth of page-time in the books -- the main antagonist (with a hackneyed multiple-generation-spanning revenge angle thrown in). Tintin's dog Snowy looks more like another beloved comic dog, Dogmatix. They have done away with entire characters and important sub-plots, including the entire expedition that comprised most of Red Rackham's Treasure. They've also given Captain Haddock a Scottish accent and -- gasp -- attempted to explain his alcoholism. Ectoplasms!

If these changes sound indigestible and unforgivable, then you'd best avoid this movie like a bottle of spurious Loch Lomond. However, what Spielberg and Jackson have tried to achieve is something potentially richer than a straight-up faithful adaptation of the comics -- it's a re-imagining from a modern-day perspective, and a pretty good one at that. Let's face it; some of Herge's material hasn't aged very well. A doggedly literal approach would've resulted in far more dated slapstick featuring bumbling detective twins Thomson and Thompson (played satisfactorily by Frost and Pegg), more expository dialogue and tamer set pieces.

Here, Spielberg brings his blockbuster sensibilities to the table and makes the action a lot more over the top than anything in the books.  So, certain jarring elements like a crane fight and an impossibly well-trained falcon feel extremely out of place in Herge's universe; but, in redemption, there is also a breathtaking one-shot action sequence set in Morocco that owns anything you've ever seen in an Indiana Jones/James Bond/Michael Bay film.

The animation that looked so lifeless in the trailers comes alive with the 3D on the big screen. Almost immediately, one understands why this movie couldn't have been live-action, nor traditional hand-drawn animation; it needed to be in a space between realistic and animated to achieve the impact of the original ligne claire drawings, while still being able to pull off outrageous set pieces.

The expressiveness is brought out by the performers in accordance with their characters. So, while Bell's Tintin usually oscillates between alarmed, puzzled and calm (as he does in the book), Serkis makes Captain Haddock his own hyper-expressive monster. This is perhaps the most satisfying depiction of Haddock in popular culture thus far -- he's blustery, somewhat uncouth and his character possesses a third dimension of emotional baggage. At long last, he comes across as what he was always meant to be: a sailor, rather than Tintin's bumbling, comic-relief friend, as most cartoon adaptations have portrayed him. That accent takes a few minutes to get used to, but now I'm wondering how Haddock didn't have it all along. Give Serkis an Oscar already!

The set-pieces are handled with trademark Spielberg finesse and, visually, this is the most dazzling thing coming into theatres since Avatar and Tron: Legacy. The scene transitions and attention to detail are fantastic. The hilarious sight gags, written and used in a way Herge would probably have (largely) approved of, are executed immaculately (my favourite was one that involved a 'travelling' hotel; a possible reference to another Tintin book, The Calculus Affair?). The legendary John Williams returns with a rousing orchestral score that adds to the swashbuckling, romantic charm of the material.

The Adventures of Tintin may be imperfect, frequently over the top and Hollywood-ised; but it is also one of the most entertaining movies of the year -- as long as you can silence your inner purist.

Also, if it introduces a whole new generation to Tintin comics, I say bring on that franchise.

P.S.: Tintinophiles, you might want to watch this movie just for that lovely, reference-filled opening credits sequence. Also, Bianca Castafiore makes an appearance.

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