The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, 2011.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Andy Serkis, Toby Jones, Cary Elwes and Mackenzie Crook.
Tintin’s purchase of a model boat sparks a mystery adventure seeking a long lost treasure.
A loud exhale came from the row behind us. Some poor kid, probably juiced up on pick ‘n’ mix, had just endured the film’s longest action sequence. Or rather, action ‘shot’.
Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) chase the evil Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig) down a steep, Arabian town towards the sea at its bottom. Both parties wrestle over three precious slips of ancient paper. All three together reveal the secret of the Unicorn – the film’s MacGuffin (a plot element that drives the narrative).
The chase is filmed in a singular, three-minute take. It echoes the continuous shot in Ong-bak, where Tony Jaa defeats a grand hall of people while climbing its winding staircase to the top. Jaa’s effort is more impressive. He was dealing in reality, whereas Tintin is computer animated. Not that it isn’t impressive, though. Being animated allows Steven Spielberg to increase the ridiculousness with each continuous second that the shot lasts.
As our heroes chase Sakharine through the sand-swept streets, their recklessness triggers other tangents to the pursuit. Just previously, Captain Haddock had accidentally launched a missile the wrong way into the wall of a nearby dam. The cascading water at their heels is one of those levels of ridiculousness.
The water forces a tank into a low archway, which also races alongside the main chase, interfering and obstructing as it does. Captain Haddock falls into an overflowing stream, and somehow ends up dressed as a woman. Snowy, Tintin’s trusty sidekick dog, battles with Sakharine’s pet bird.
Not only was this all occurring simultaneously, it was also all happening in the same shot. To manage so many sub-narratives at the same time requires an enormous imagination and solid structure. It provides the same sense of enjoyment and exhilaration as watching a Rube Goldberg machine.
So you can empathise with that kid, wired on coke (fizzy bottle variety), on the row behind us. Each second longer that the action continued would have convoluted him up even tighter, like one of those wind-up toy cars that you pull back and back to give it its charge.
Remember when you were young, and how being tickled was an almost torturous experience? The sensation was so intense that you’d lose your breath. That’s how a lot of the kids were in the cinema (it was half term). Tintin is a true, ol’ fashioned adventure story – Tintin has a gun in some scenes - just executed with very modern technology.
A kid with a gun! It felt dangerous. You don’t often get guns in kids’ films. Despite the cartoon faces and colour corrected skies, there was a Noirish realism whenever Tintin whipped out a pistol.
There’s something quite comforting about having a lovable alcoholic in a children’s movie, too. Captain Haddock is constantly on the booze. “I have a beard!? When did I get a beard!?” realises the Captain in Serkis’ best Scottish accent, stranded in the middle of a desert. “A day in the Sahara is all it took to sober you up,” observes Tintin, being a bit of a shit about the poor guy’s withdrawal symptoms.
The Sahara! They began in a European city (which, despite all the British accents, you have to assume is Brussels). They travel on a boat, a plane; they go to deserts and exotic lands; there are hoards of eccentric characters, treasure, a plot that began centuries before. It’s adventure done properly.
The rest of the audience was comprised of the children’s accompaniment: mothers, aunties, grandparents. I’ve always liked the idea of grandparents taking their grandchildren to the cinema. A twinge of over-romanticised magic always yanks at the heart when they do. That these old folks probably read the Tintin books back when they were young makes it even more poignant. It creates a thin thread through time, something as throwaway as popular culture linking these two distant generations.
There wouldn’t be that much waxing lyrical if the film wasn’t made with such a visible and tender affection for the source comics. Not a single shred of exploitation comes across. The animation is incredibly faithful to Hergé’s original drawings. But then again, it’s something else entirely.
Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital animated Tintin with the help of motion capture suits. This gives the characters an incredibly human quality. Their physical and facial movements are uncanny from our own. This is our world, just in cartoon.
In previous films, this has been a hindrance (the awkward mouths of The Polar Express or the nauseous A Christmas Carol). But the animation in Tintin is truly breath-taking. You’ll be hard pressed to find a film that shares visuals like it.
Such a lifelike quality gives the more fantastical elements of Tintin (see: the epic, one-shot action sequence) an anchor in reality. It helps one suspend their disbelief a little further. Spielberg has judged his effects right. Of course he has. He’s Spielberg.
Some (anyone reviewing for the Guardian) have blamed this for the film’s lack of emotional depth. They cite something called the ‘uncanny valley’, which is where animation becomes too lifelike and therefore creepy. Animation requires a cartoony appearance for the brain to accept it as good animation. Get too realistic, and it just gets weird.
There’s certainly an argument there, but that doesn’t fully explain why you never really end up rooting for anyone/thing. This is a narrative fault. There’s no romantic subplot to hook on the heartstrings. Tintin just has his dog and a drunken sea captain. The film is in desperate need of a scene where the romantic interest requires rescuing.
Otherwise, the script is flawless. You’d expect it to be, as Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote it. Unfortunately, though, Tintin is an oddly asexual character. Any more sexless and he’d become an amoeba. Who could you possibly use as a love interest?
Come here, Snowy.
365 Days, 100 Films