The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
If there’s a filmmaker more closely associated with the art of nostalgia than Steven Spielberg then his name eludes me. J. J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was an attempt to wrestle sentiment from Close Encounters and E.T. but, as “The Adventures of Tintin” proves: only Spielberg knows the workings of his own ouvre. When this project came to light the assumption that it would be a live action adventure was quickly hushed by an announcement that this was to represent this director’s first foray into the realm of animation. The finished product is somewhere in the middle of both, with the use of motion capture technology providing a hybrid clash of cartoon action and human instinct.
Hergé’s Tintin books are beloved in Europe, where they’ve gained more exposure, and where the continental sensibilities of this crime fighting, globe-hopping hero have more obvious appeal. The African country of Morocco is the destination for “Secret of the Unicorn,” which sees Tintin (Bell) as an already-established sleuth drawn into the mystery of the Haddock family, and the lost cargo of their long-since sunken ship. Accompanied by his dog Snowy he encounters one of their descendants, Captain Haddock (Serkis), but is continually thwarted in his mission of retrieval by the vengeful, greedy aristocrat Sakharine (Craig).
There’s a delicacy to Tintin as a character which makes him seem knowing, but an ultimate show-off, and it’s this vague arrogance that allows for the key elements of the quest to be outlined to an infant audience. As is the case with so many mystery stories aimed at kids (Nancy Drew, The Famous Five etc.) the story hinges on foreseeable plot points, which frequently feature objects or clues as the catalyst for revelations. And still, the thoughtful approach towards themes of heritage, kinship, and masculine inadequacy (there are barely any women in this film) extend “The Adventures of Tintin” into universal territory. In the mould of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Spielberg shifts the dramatic onus upon uncovering historical truths, and uses the exotic setting as a handy platform for action sequences – one particular street chase a marvel in choreography and execution.
Shifting focus towards a more nautical-themed adventure allows Tintin’s burgeoning relationship with Haddock to take centre stage, and kingpin of the filmmaking medium Andy Serkis to have a ball as the incompetent drunkard with a heart. But ultimately, it’s a shame that Morocco doesn’t greatly contribute to the crux of the mystery, given the amount of television episodes dedicated to interweaving foreign intrigue into the story’s crimes and motives . Moreover, the ending of the film is a tad anticlimactic in the ease at which it shows us what we’ve essentially seen before, and then leads into the promise of a sequel with a very similar goal to this adventure. If the heavily-suggested sequel goes ahead then one expects the follow-up will have to considerably build upon “Secret of the Unicorn,” which lays the groundwork but likely won’t emerge as the model of attainability. It’s stoking the embers rather than blazing the world alight, and setting out its stall for a franchise.
This quirkily-conceived detective adventure meshes well with Spielberg’s cinematic tropes and represents a return to form which – however brief with the hotly-anticipated “War Horse” ready to emerge – will encourage those who had lost faith. It’s worth noting that many of this film’s shortcomings could also be said of the book and TV series adaptation, which itself is a confirmation that Spielberg has done right by this franchise. Some will simply be unable to fully invest in the neither-here-nor-there motion capture technique, but in terms of narrative and character “The Adventures of Tintin” captures the charm of the man, his friends and enemies, and the casual nature of criminal investigation as enlightening, brisk fun. Forget horses for a while, and instead turn your attention to the antics of one man and his dog.