Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

I’ve always found Tintin a little creepy, even when I was small. He’s always somewhere in the middle of two things, and neither of them. He’s not a child, nor a man. He’s not handsome, nor ugly. He’s not cute, nor cool. And he lives in a weird sexless world of funny men that’s neither comic nor serious. The Hergé comics, despite their great characters, never sat well with me, and though I’d smile to see Tintin décor in Belgian cafés, I’ve not touched a Tintin comic since the early 90s.

On the other hand, this project had me quite excited. For one thing, it’s part of what seems like Spielberg’s resurgence into relevance: after everyone hated Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (most blaming Lucas) and nobody saw Munich, it seemed he was more a producer figure than a director. But then Super 8 reminded an audience who had become used to postmodern glibness how much we miss his earnest style of filmmaking, War Horse created a lot of buzz – and Tintin came out. It’s not only directed by Spielberg, but has a number of exciting names attached. Peter Jackson was producing, and will direct the sequel. Steven Moffat, one of the slew of writers Doctor Who has slung into prominence, adapted two of the Tintin comics (with a little aside into a third) for a film, and while I may not like everything he writes for the show, he certainly made the Russell T. Davis era slightly more bearable when in my view the writing was the worst it’s ever been. Working with him were Edgar Wright, who writes material for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (their roles as Thomson and Thompson probably the thing they’ve done I've liked the most), plus Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe – another Pegg/Frost cohort.

The cast was also fine. I would perhaps have preferred the originally-cast Thomas Sangster as Tintin, but Jamie Bell – of Billy Elliot fame – did a great job in a purposefully slightly wooden performance that fit just right with the slightly hapless Tintin. Andy Serkis was perfectly hammy yet loveable as Haddock, and Daniel Craig’s sinister posh accent was a lovely against-type bit of exaggeration I’d have loved to see delivered. Toby Jones continued his rise to prominence with a nice little cameo role, and I smiled at the Hergé-like figure at the very beginning of the film.

Stylistically, it’s a fairly startling piece of CG. The motion capture techniques mean the CG figures’ every little head movement, every narrowing of the eyes and every flinch, is startlingly real. While the look of CG films has moved on a lot since, say, The Polar Express, and there’s no fear of the characters looking too doll-like, the realism of their movements does on occasion put them into the uncanny valley. That said, I loved the clash of realistic presentation and comic book designs – the outsized noses and silly head shapes fit in perfectly to create a great aesthetic. On the other hand, I think I would have rather the animators relied on the language of animation and created all their movements from scratch – Snowy was probably the one whose movements were most appealing, after all, and as rotoscoping taught us, the most realistic motions are not always the most appealing ones in animation. Plus of course, the best visual elements of the film were those possible only in animation – desert dunes becoming huge waves, action caught perfectly in a drop of water, superbly silly setpieces like the grand chase down a steep hill pursued by a tank dragging along a hotel building.

And for once, the 3D genuinely enhanced the experience. It was extremely well done.

The story was not perfect. It felt like it needed a few more draughts to slice away a little of the flab. They obviously wanted some of the detective story feel at the beginning, but it ended up not getting there, so seemed to drag and felt unnecessary. Too much of the character interaction was given over to getting Haddock to remember a rather silly detail that allowed him to link someone his grandfather had seen (and told him about once) to a present-day relation. The ending was also a bit clumsy, and it would have been nice to have the climax of the action and the solution of the mystery together rather than consecutively.

Once its action got into its stride, though, the film was immense fun. It had some of the best visual comedy and slapstick of any CG film, and that’s saying a lot when it’s Pixar’s speciality. For the laughs, the fun characters, the performances and especially the bravura action scenes, well worth seeing – but not a perfect film, or one to move you.

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