Film #34: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Language: English and some French
Length: 107 minutes
Watched on: 25 October

If you look back to the very first post I made on this blog, half of it is me not being very enthusiastic about this film. I’ve never been too keen on the idea of motion capture and 3D animation and would have much rather they did it in live action. So I went to see this with some trepidation. And given that I walked away from it not hating it, that can surely only be a good thing, can’t it?

Let’s start with the plot. It’s called The Secret of the Unicorn, but a more accurate title might be The Secret of Red Rackham’s Crab Treasure with the Golden Unicorn Claws, because it combines elements of the plots of (mainly) The Secret of the Unicorn and The Crab with the Golden Claws, and some parts of Red Rackham’s Treasure. And let’s just say they’re integrated confusingly. And that some parts of the storyline are pulled out of someone’s arse. Overall, it’s bloated, and in several places it is simply confusing. I’ll try to summarise it. Liberal spoilers may be ahead, by the way, in case you don’t read the header of this page.

Basically, it starts off reasonably like Unicorn, but once the plot begins to kick in, Tintin sets off on a ship, as in the beginning of the plot of Crab, and meets Captain Haddock. Because Haddock wasn’t already Tintin’s friend at the beginning of the story, the writers have already had to jump through a few hoops to get the story to be coherent: instead of learning about the Unicorn and Sir Frances Haddock from Captain Haddock, Tintin reads about them in the library, suggesting that they’re somehow famous, and that the Captain didn’t just have some old diaries stowed away in his attic. In the book all the details of the Unicorn and Sir Frances were long since forgotten – they piece together the information using Sir Frances’s portrait and the diaries that the Captain finds – but here the Captain recalls it all from memory while drunk in the desert.

What’s there of the Crab plot is rather more faithfully reproduced. The captain takes an aside after they get rescued in the desert to relay the Sir Frances story, complete with a rather impressive swashbuckling scene. It starts to fall down a bit when they reach the Moroccan port, and it turns out that the third Unicorn model is held by Omar Ben Salaad, the villain in the book, but here a much more extravagant rich man who is essentially a foil to get at the third Unicorn model MacGuffin. And then Bianca Castafiore makes an (admittedly welcome) appearance – her purpose is to sing at such a high note that the protective glass around the model will break. I had to facepalm quite a bit at this point; Hergé, to his credit, never had such ridiculous notions in his book, and the time that he did have a high note that could break glass, it was ultrasound, and produced by very expensive equipment developed by Professor Calculus (who’s unfortunately absent from the film, but that’s OK, I guess, because he hadn’t been introduced yet in the books).

Captain Haddock’s backstory, as I’ve mentioned, has changed a lot. He’s actually introduced off-the-bat as Archibald, which bothered me more than it should have, since it was a name introduced right at the end of the series, and he goes on about his bloodline and his family way more than he ever did in the books. Now, to be fair, in the books, he’s the only character with any family – there’s the aforementioned Sir Frances Haddock, his ancestor in the 17th century, and a mention of his mother in one of the first scenes where he’s introduced in the book version of Crab – but did he really have to bang on about the stories his granddaddy used to tell by the fireside? This, of course, ended up being the only way they could integrate the Sir Frances story into the film, and it felt clumsy to me.

And then there’s the plot item that probably bothered me the most, which was the identity of the villain. Not the Bird Brothers as in Unicorn, not Omar ben Salaad or Allan as in Crab, but… Ivan Sakharin? Wait, Ivan Sakharin the harmless collector who only gets involved because he happened to have a Unicorn model? Poor guy, he did nothing wrong. I can almost see why they decided to use him, or at least I hope I’m right because it would be a terrible shame indeed if he was promoted to villain just because his name is Russian. Having two villains, such as the Bird Brothers, would probably have become too complicated, I suppose. I suspect the real reason is because he bears a visual resemblance to Red Rackham, and both characters are played by Daniel Craig, just like Andy Serkis plays Captain Haddock and Sir Frances Haddock. But it was quite a major point, really, and in some ways I felt as if they could have even used an extant villain like Rastapopoulos.

Anyway, there are some cool new scenes that have been added too, like a more in-depth look at how Tintin and the Captain get off the ship, including a bit where Tintin has to somehow sneak the keys off a sleeping sailor. And then the keys turn out to be for the drinks cabinet (unlike some other adaptations of Tintin, this certainly doesn’t shy away from the Captain’s drunkenness, and there’s a bit later on where they play up the tension between the two characters until they really are bickering like a married couple over the issue). Or there’s a bit when they’re on the plane and Tintin takes a nose-dive, causing zero-G, so Snowy and the Captain start fighting over a floating blob of whisky that’s just escaped from a bottle – a scene practically taken right out of the Moon story, and one of many little bits that have been added from other stories.

But it does dip into Spielbergian action-based absurdity at times. The swashbuckling scene was pretty good, for instance, but the ships become interlocked by the masts and practically capsize each other, which I found a bit ludicrous; later, there’s a scene where a dam busts and Tintin starts riding a motorcycle across rooftops trying to run away from it. It felt too fast-paced. I know that Spielberg attributes a lot of his success to ideas that he got from Tintin, particularly in the case of things like Indiana Jones, but this felt much more like Indiana Jones than Tintin, who I’ve always seen as more mellow.

Now, as for the animation, it was… OK. Well, in fact, at times it was brilliant, particularly the set pieces, which were often majestic. The port town in Morocco springs to mind immediately, transposed to a valley where the characters could look down on it in all its glory, although it loses the very claustrophobic feel that it had in the book. Or there’s the swashbuckling scene that I mentioned already.

When it comes to animating characters, though, they’re all over the shop. To the film’s credit, it largely avoids the “Uncanny Valley” problem that’s plagued other mo-cap and 3D films in the past, at least for Tintin himself. But they can’t decide whether they want to be realistic or cartoonish, leading to the problem where you have Tintin and Sakharin, who are believable as humans, standing next to the Captain and the Thompson twins, who are frankly not; they have huge bulbous heads and noses. They’re trying too hard to copy exactly the style of the books, I think, where they do have cartoonishly large noses, but the Thompsons’ heads are rather enlarged beyond that too.

As for Snowy, he looks completely ridiculous. I think part of the problem here comes from the fact that they don’t have an equivalent of mo-cap for dogs, but Snowy, of all the characters, is the most cartoonish, and doesn’t seem to be based on any particular model. His features are quite rigid. He also doesn’t get a very big part in the movie; this is partly because in the books, all the roles he fulfilled early on, which were mainly along the lines of being a comic foil to Tintin, were usurped by the Captain upon his introduction. So Snowy feels a bit sidelined here.

The actors who play these characters are fairly alright, too. Andy Serkis in particular is a good, expressive actor when he’s using mo-cap (we know this already from Gollum, of course!), although he just had to put on a bad Scottish accent (I swear I heard intrusive R several times), didn’t he? Jamie Bell does surprisingly well as Tintin, and his accent is made pleasingly neutral. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost famously played the Thompsons, but I didn’t feel they made a distinctive enough performance, and I couldn’t tell which was played by which (is that a strength or a weakness in this case? I don’t even know!). Their part in the movie, like Snowy’s, was also comparatively small.

It all manages to come together, somehow, into something relatively pleasing, which is almost surprising. The plot is the main bit that’s all over the place; the animation and the actors are pretty OK, especially for a form of animation that I really feel has only been used to give Peter Jackson an excuse to play around with it like some kind of toy, and the problems I have with it are mostly minor.

I can’t help coming back to the plot again, though, just to finish off with. I can’t help but feel they’ve missed a trick on one or two occasions, like not having Tintin imprisoned under Marlinspike Hall and having him find the junk room. Hergé’s plots were so tight (even though I know that he didn’t plan very far ahead while writing them) and coherent that it confuses me as to why they’d mix them up so much and introduce so many ridiculous plot elements that only serve to confuse (I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface here!). It makes me wonder why they didn’t just adapt the two-parter story – Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure as one film. One possible reason is that the second part doesn’t have a present villain, as the Bird Brothers are imprisoned after the end of Unicorn. The other might be that the Captain wasn’t introduced already… but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a problem just to have him there at the start. It brings to mind the BBC Radio adaptation, in which Tintin says rather offhandedly that he had simply met the Captain inbetween the events of the consecutive episodes of The Black Island and Unicorn. I should really listen to that again; it’s been a couple of years now since the last time.

As a final word, I will say that there were some absolutely brilliant added moments in this movie. The two in particular that I’m thinking of are the opening scene, which has a cameo by an animated Hergé, and the scene where Tintin steals the plane halfway through – after being asked if he knew how to fly the plane, he answers “Don’t worry, I interviewed a pilot once!” Overall, while it suffers in places from major plot coherence issues, ridiculous and unrealistic plot points, and some questionable animation, it very much keeps the spirit of Tintin alive and for that I commend it.

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One Response to Film #34: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

  1. Pingback: FILM: Tintin et les oranges bleues (1964) « reuoq

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