Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Spielberg’s motion-capture adaptation of Europe’s favourite ginger-tufted boy-reporter is, well, enthusiastic. It has some of the most gorgeous moments where panels from the comics are almost exactly rendered on the screen. I could not prevent a small gasp upon seeing Marlinspike Hall towering up in the shadows, or even on seeing Tintin’s rooms in Labrador Road – even with the added furnishing’s of obvious things like a fridge, it was still most certainly and instinctively recognisable as Tintin’s apartment.

Captain Haddock’s account of the battle of The Unicorn with Red Rackham’s pirate ship was realised much as it is in the book – flipping between Captain Haddock telling the story and Francis Haddock living it – in the book this is because Haddock stayed up all night reading his ancestor’s journals and getting pissed and hasn’t quite escaped his reverie when Tintin comes to break the door down and find out what’s going on. In the film, it is because Haddock is suffering from sobriety and sun-stroke in the desert. Yes, if you haven’t seen it yet or haven’t read any reviews, Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn is, somewhat inexplicably a mish-mash of Secret of the Unicorn and The Crab with the Golden Claws, rather than more sensibly incorporating Red Rackham’s Treasure, which is the direct sequel to Secret of the Unicorn. They did, however, take the conclusion from Red Rackham’s Treasure and bung it into the movie. Essentially, they really fucked up the plot. Now, even as an absolute Tintin-fanatic, I cannot say that Hergé ever consistently gave water-tight plot. In Flight 471, for example, the plot is rather bizarrely and inexplicably resolved by aliens. Yes. Aliens. Not one of Hergé’s finest moments. However, the plots were, on the whole, never overly-complicated. Occasionally they were a little implausible, but nothing that couldn’t be resolved in 50 or so pages of beautifully-drawn panels.

Spielberg’s incarnation, on the other hand, is a real mess of slap-stick and action-sequences, culminating in a transformer battle-like scene between Captain Haddock and Sakharine. This is really quite over the top, and does not at all capture the sense of the world Hergé portrayed. Tintin is always resourceful, and has more skills than one might expect (he can actually fly a sea-plane, he didn’t merely interview a pilot) but after Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which includes a memorable scene where Tintin carves out a working propeller for his plane from a tree trunk with a pen knife, Hergé cut out the completely unreasonable scenes, or, as if in moments where Tintin dashes his motor-car out in front of a moving train, not without a sense of panic. Captain Haddock is not a man who could control a shipping-crane in a skilled one-on-one battle with his nemesis.

Haddock’s nemesis leads me to another point. Sakharine. Mr. Sakharine, voiced by Daniel Craig, is, in Spielberg, a cunning, arch-villain, controlling the plot from start to finish. In the books, Mr. Saccharine is a harmless and hapless boat-collector, who appears for a handful of panels only and is actually a victim of the bad-guys. It seems unnecessary to make such a change, and not merely out of a sense of plot purity. The villains in Tintin are simply not like that. They are quite fallible, and not just because they have a dundering crew. The only villain, Rastapopolous, who comes close to this is so behind the scenes that for the majority of the time neither Tintin nor the readers know he is the villain, and even suspect that he is dead. Spielberg’s incarnation of Sakharine, however, crumbles the entire story into comic puppetry. This is not Tintin on the streets of Chicago, or dealing with opium delaers and gun runners and frankly, the really gritty side of life, this is just Tintin falling into a second-rate treasure hunt, and even though the villain is an arch-villain, we have seen him countless times before in Hollywood; the supposedly arch-villain who is inevitably defeated. The plot thus loses any dynamism.

Furthermore, Haddock delivers a motivational speech to Tintin towards the end of the film, sitting in Baghaar, watching the Karaboudjan sail away. “You’re not a failure. If you think you’ve failed, you give off a signal and the world counts you as a failure”. I have two problems with this. 1) This is not Captain Haddock. Captain Haddock is a man who, on several occasions gets his motivation entirely from whisky and being manipulated by a casual insult. 2) Failure is such a different concept in the world of Tintin. Failure means that the criminals get away with it. Failure means the bad guys continue to deal opium, to steal and murder. Personal failure and melancholic introspection are simply not up for discussion. Now that’s neither good nor bad, but it seems a touch unnecessary to pervert the sentiment of the original simply to fit into the Hollywood schema for kid’s movies: “Oh yeah, it’s gotta have some action. It’s gotta have a cute animal. It’s gotta have real simple humour. And oh yeah, give it a big fat moral and it will go down a storm”. What tripe. What unbelievable tripe. Tintin is about good guys against bad guys, about the principles of reporting (he must always uncover the truth), about not caving into the pressure of something that you know is wrong, about helping out your friends, and about doing the right thing even when they stand in your way. There is plenty to learn from Tintin without slapping a big, fat, obvious and frankly dull moral on top of it. But sure, this is Hollywood. Who actually wants to think in order to find a meaning?

I simply cannot understand how the directors, who have clearly read extensively enough to find out that Captain Haddock’s name is Archibald, and who profess such a deep love of Tintin, could have still got it quite so wrong.

Tom McCarthy wrote an excellent article in The Guardian lambasting Spielberg’s creation. Like McCarthy, I have to agree to completely enjoying the fantastic opening credits and that beautiful first scene where we find Hergé painting Tintin’s likeness in the Old Street Market. It was almost completely downhill from then on. As a Tintin expert, McCarthy’s article can give you plenty of reasons why this film is really quite pants. By all means, watch it, but if you are a) a fan of Tintin or b) a fan of good movies, don’t get your hopes up.

(Read Tom McCarthy’s article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/28/adventures-tintin-secret-unicorn-spielberg?newsfeed=true)

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2 thoughts on “Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

  1. I never knew Tintin till the movie (though the painting did ring some bell). It is my 2 year old sons favorite movie. He watches it a lot and I still find myself enjoying it each time I sit down with him.

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