“I’ll not be doubted by some pipsqueak tuft of ginger and his irritating dog! I am master and commander of the seas!”
Deneb’s Rating: Oh, man, oh, man, oh, man…
Deneb’s Review: Oh, man, oh, man, oh – *WHACK*
Thanks. I needed that.
As you may have gathered, I’m kind of a big Tintin fan. So you’ll pardon me for getting a little… excited back there.
For those of you who may need a refresher, Tintin is a Belgian comic book (initially comic strip) character, created by Georges Remi (popularly known as Herge) back in 1929. The title character is a young reporter who battles evil wherever he may find it – which seems to be just about everywhere. With his faithful dog Snowy (‘Milou’ in the original French) at his side, his adventures span almost fifty years, and while they ended with Herge’s death, they are still some of the most popular and influential comics in the world – and some of my personal favorites.
Seriously, there was a not-all-that-long-ago period of my life where I ate, slept and breathed Tintin. I was actually pretty snooty about comics as a little kid – ‘cause, y’know, everyone knew that real books were better (insert supercilious snorting noise here) – but I made an exception for Tintin, because, well. It was Tintin.
Since then, of course, my interests have branched out a bit, but I’m still a devotee of the series. I usually wind up rereading bits of it a few times a year, and even though I more or less know it chapter and verse by now, it never fails to excite and amuse. So when I heard that Steven Spielberg was going to make a Tintin movie, you can better believe my pulse sped up a bit.
I was waiting years for this one, folks. I was following as much of the news as I could; I was hopping up and down with impatience as the release date drew nigh (and every time it was delayed, as happened a couple of times, you better believe a few bitter epithets passed my lips) – I was stoked for this thing. I hadn’t been this excited by an upcoming movie since the release of the original X-Men. The Avengers flick? Yeah, I’m lookin’ forward to that. But it’s small potatoes next to Tintin.
Or rather, it was. Because the movie did come out, I’ve seen it, and now I am reviewing it. Yes. Indeed. I am. Let’s go.
The story is set in the same unspecified mid-20th-century period that the books are largely set in. As it begins, Tintin (Jamie Bell) is enjoying a leisurely walk when he spots something for sale in the local street market – an old model ship. It’s quite a nice one, and he decides to buy it.
All very innocent, yes? Except not. Virtually the moment he’s bought the thing, he’s got two people looking to buy it from him, one who warns him that it’ll bring him danger, and one, a Mr. Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who wants it for reasons of his own – and it seems likely that they don’t include a love of model ships.
Tintin, smelling a rat somewhere, says no to both offers. Since such ratty-smelly things are sort of his stock-in-trade, he sticks his nose a little deeper into things. This leads to a rapid succession of events which culminate in him being kidnapped and held prisoner on board a ship bound for Morocco, along with its theoretical captain – one Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), a drunken wreck of a man who’s had his ship stolen out from under him.
It turns out that this is no mere model ship that Tintin bought – it’s a replica of the Unicorn, a 17th century vessel captained by Haddock’s ancestor, one Sir Francis. This is part of a legacy that has wrecked the Haddock line up to the present day, one which includes three model Unicorns, each hiding an important clue to a puzzle – a puzzle that Sakharine is determined to solve.
The two prisoners team up to escape, and end up in a race with the villain to obtain the precious clues before he does. But can they win a race in which they seem perpetually three steps behind? And what is the secret of the Unicorn? The Captain knows – but can he remember…?
OK, so, as was inevitable with so much build-up, there were certain elements of this movie that didn’t quite match up to my expectations. Let’s start with those.
TAoT is based on two of the better-known Tintin stories – The Secret of the Unicorn, from which most of the story is drawn, and The Crab with the Golden Claws, which introduced Captain Haddock as Tintin’s faithful sidekick. (There’s also a little bit of Red Rackham’s Treasure, the sequel to Unicorn, but I get the impression that most of it will be saved for the next entry in the series.) Conceptually, these were good choices that made perfect sense – after all, Haddock is one of the best and most omnipresent characters, so they more or less had to fit him in, and the two-album Unicorn arc is probably the most popular of them all. In terms of story logic, there’s every reason to fit these two together.
Unfortunately, there are other factors at work here. One of the things that makes the series work so well is that every album in it has its own distinctive feel – you never get the same story told twice, and while there are entries that share common elements, they’re always handled in different ways. One story’s that of a race, one is that of an espionage thriller, one’s science-fiction, one’s a pulpy jungle-trekking affair, etc., etc.
Now, in terms of the series, this is a good thing. In terms of this movie… not so much.
Because the individual stories are so different in tone, when you jam two of them together like this, they never completely fit. Unicorn is primarily a mystery, a lead-in to a grand treasure hunt, whereas Golden Claws is a continent-hopping adventure. The two really don’t have much in common, and the director seems to be trying to be faithful to both at once – which strikes me as laudable, but not practical. The end result is a story that feels at times like pages were taken out of Unicorn and Red Rackham and glued into the middle of Golden Claws. I’m a fan of both stories, so I really don’t mind too much, but there’s no denying that the back-and-forth tonal shifts can be a wee bit jarring – it never really feels like a syncretic whole.
This is not helped by the fact that the movie has a third “tone” that it slips in and out of – that of cartoonish exaggeration. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a few pratfalls and the like in my Tintin. Herge indulged in slapstick humor quite a bit, and did it very well. But he never allowed it to take over completely – he always grounded it in just enough realism to make it convincing. It was a delicate balance, but he pulled it off.
Here, on the other hand, we seem to be taking occasional side-trips into Looney Tunes territory. Characters get flung about every which-a-way in this movie without being affected in the slightest – at one point, someone gets hit by a lightning bolt, for Pete’s sake, and we get the classic ‘momentary X-ray’ effect that everyone from Bugs Bunny to Rocky and Bullwinkle have indulged in. I’m not saying that none of this works, and there are certainly sequences that show inspired comic timing, but when you get right down to it, TAoT is an adventure story. It’s all about danger, the excitement of overcoming it, and the apprehension that this time the heroes might not overcome it – something which is somewhat undermined when people are shrugging off freakin’ lightning bolts. I can appreciate this sort of thing when it’s in, say, Despicable Me, but here it just turns scenes that should be breathtakingly gripping into ones that are… well. Not as.
Then there’s Captain Haddock. I’ll get into him in more detail later on, but for the moment, let’s just say that I think he was a bit mishandled here. His being portrayed as a miserable drunken wreck throughout most of the film is valid enough, as it’s perfectly in line with his initial depiction in Golden Claws, but there are other aspects of his character that just don’t come through.
Plainly and simply, this version of Haddock is too, well…. nice. He’s like a big sad puppydog throughout practically the whole flick. “Oh, no, I’ve screwed up again! I hope Tintin won’t hate me! Please don’t hate me, Tintin!” Aw c’mon, Tintin, lookit them big droopy eyes! You couldn’t hate a face like that, couldja?
This is thoroughly ignoring the fact that the Captain’s main defining trait – and arguably, the thing that led to his continuing popularity – is that he’s an irascible S.O.B. Sure, there’s a the-world-is-against-me aspect to him throughout the series, but he doesn’t get sad, he gets mad. This is the guy whose standard expression is a scowl. This is the guy who flies into a rage and hurls nonsensical invective at the slightest provocation. (There’s even been a compilation published called the “Dictionary of Captain Haddock’s Insults”.) This is the guy, moreover, who is almost always the counter to Tintin’s idealism, arguing for swift heave-ho justice for their enemies as opposed to his young friend’s standard “let the law punish them” morality. Sure, he’s loyal to the core, sure, he’s got a good heart, and sure, he does have sad-sack moments – but not to this extent. Haddock should be rougher and gruffer and overall growlier than this movie depicts him.
Also, there’s something else about the Captain that is handled a little strangely – his drunkenness. Booze barely seems to affect him at all; he’s pretty much exactly the same drunk as he is sober. I’m not saying that a realistic depiction of alcoholism would be called for in a movie like this – nobody wants to see him passed out in a puddle of vomit or anything like that – but it is just a little bit weird to see Haddock pounding down bottle after bottle of the hard stuff and not getting even a wee bit inebriated. Sure, the Haddock from the comics is not exactly a realistic boozer either, but at least there are consequences to his drinking; he gets all riled up and starts slurring his words and such. This Haddock doesn’t even do that – in fact, he is notably affected by the Demon Drink precisely two times in the entire film, and those are both plot points. I don’t want to play moralist here, but there’s something a little dubious about a family movie that basically depicts alcohol as something you can slug down like water with little-to-no consequence.
But you know what? I’m nitpicking. I can’t help but nitpick – I’ve been a huge Tintin freak for most of my life, and I know the books like the back of my hand. Of course I’m going to obsess over these sorts of details; the real question is whether or not the movie is good despite them.
The answer, thankfully, is yes, it is. The filmmakers may have made a few decisions that I would quibble over, but when you get right down to it, they nailed what Tintin is all about. They didn’t try to make it all grim n’ gritty, they didn’t try to shoehorn in irrelevant detail that was never there, they didn’t try to rack up controversy points by putting the characters through the meat-grinder in the name of “realism” – they stayed true to them and gave us a faithful (if slightly muddled) interpretation of the series. Sure, it isn’t perfect, but it’s trying its best, and that will always gain my approval.
And while I may disapprove of Spielberg’s looney-tuning it up in parts, I can’t get too annoyed with it, since it’s a byproduct of the sheer energy he invested into every frame. This is the first animated film he’s ever made, and you can practically feel him getting giddy as a schoolgirl over all the possibilities – he can do things in this format that he never could in live-action, and he’s taken full advantage of it.
There are many action sequences in this movie, and each and every one of them practically hums with movement and life. Sure, some of them are a little overdone in spots, some a little confusing, but the parts that work really work, and the ones that don’t are a forgivable result of an old dog learning a new trick. This movie is all about fun and adventure, and that is a palpable feeling right up until the credits roll.
On to the characters. I’m not too wild about Jamie Bell’s interpretation of Tintin – he’s just a little too breathy and golly-gee for my tastes – but really, I can hardly blame him, as it’s a tough role to tackle. Tintin is sort of this odd combination of blank slate and seasoned adventurer that doesn’t really give an actor much to go on – he’s one of those characters who really works best on the printed page. Bell doesn’t do a perfect job, but he gives it the old college try, and I certainly don’t hate his performance; it just doesn’t match up to the one in my head, and really, what could?
Tintin, of course, is never without his trusty canine companion, which is good news for the movie, since Snowy is awesome here. He retains the more or less human-level intelligence he has in the books, but his reactions and motivations are all very recognizably canine. It’s a winning combination – he manages to steal the show without saying a single line. There’s always been a small, cynical part of me that questioned the logic of bringing a small dog along on such dangerous missions – well, if the dog kicks as much ass as he does here, it’s fully justified as far as I’m concerned.
Moving on to Captain Haddock. I’ve already aired my feelings about this interpretation of him, but that does not mean he’s a bad character – he’s still Captain freakin’ Haddock, and Haddock kicks ass no matter where he is. I’m not sure exactly why Andy Serkis chose to voice him with a Scottish accent, but I can’t argue with the results. I may wish that this Haddock had a bit more grit to him, but as a washed-up sad-sack, he’s very convincing. Serkis really manages to convey the weight of his family legacy, and how it’s been crushing him all his life – and as this is more or less the heart and soul of the story… yeah. That’s good. And thankfully, he does get a few scenes where his badass comics self shines through – the flashback sequences where he’s more or less playing his ancestor have a rough-edged energy that is purely Haddockian, to coin a phrase. If the Captain had been like that throughout the film, I would have had no problems with him at all.
Moving on down the list, we have Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), a pair of near-identical detectives who represent the forces of law and order – and provide an eternal source of comic relief. You may note that this is the first I’ve mentioned them in this review, and there’s a reason for that, as they really have very little impact on the story. I’m not too wild about their interpretation here – sure, they’ve always been bumbling idiots, but despite everything, they still somehow manage to be semi-competent at their jobs most of the time. In this version of things, however, they’re complete and utter knobs who can barely walk down the street without tripping each other up. Frost and Pegg have their usual chemistry together (and, to their credit, I have no idea who is playing who, which is sort of the point), but the characters just don’t really click.
Last we have Daniel Craig as Sakharine, who really should have come before T&T, I suppose, but didn’t, because they’re characters from the original comics and he… only sort of is. (For more on that, see the Intermission section.) Craig is clearly having fun in the role, and gets to deliver some nicely over-the-top line readings, but there’s really not much to say about his character. He’s an old-school black-hearted villain, and that’s pretty much all there is to him.
So, thumbs up thumbs down? Thumbs up, I would say. If you’re not familiar with the character, then for Pete’s sake read some of the comics first – there’s no beating the originals – but as an introduction to Tintin, you could still do an awful lot worse. The movie has its flaws, but it is the first in a series, and hopefully the sequels will iron them out. Either way, it’s still starring some of my favorite characters in all the world, and as such will always be welcome in my DVD player.
Oh, and – Blistering Barnacles! Thundering Typhoons!
Ooh yeah. That felt good.
Drew’s rating: Ten thousand thundering typhoons!
Drew’s review: It’s an old joke that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who love Tintin, and Americans. It’s not entirely true — I know several fellow Yanks who dig on the Belgian boy reporter — but it might as well be. Much like Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories, the Tintin series is worshiped in Europe but virtually unknown here.
And that’s a shame, because they’re fantastic comics full of adventure, humor, and intrigue. Thankfully my 6th grade teacher had the whole collection and let us read them during homeroom, but those of you who grew up bereft of Mrs. Gelprin’s hospitality should definitely seek them out. Fortunately, right after Steven Spielberg finished Raiders of the Lost Ark, a newspaper review compared it to the Tintin books, prompting Spielberg to investigate the series and fall in love. Eventually gaining the blessing (and the rights) from Tintin creator Herge in 1983, it only took Spielberg 28 years to clear his schedule and get Peter Jackson involved, and voila! – The Adventures of Tintin.
Our story finds the intrepid reporter (Bell) and his faithful dog Snowy buying a model ship at a flea market, only to stumble upon a tiny scroll hidden in the ship’s mast. Through it, Tintin learns of the existence of two other ships, each with their own scrolls that, when combined, will lead to unfathomable treasure. But his attempts to find the other ships will pit Tintin against unscrupulous collector Ivan Sakharine (Craig), as well as bring him into contact with the drunken Captain Haddock (Serkis), who may prove to be Tintin’s greatest challenge or staunchest ally. The race will lead from Belgium to the high seas and on to the Middle East, while back home, bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson pursue a pickpocket, because they’re major characters in the series and had to be worked in somewhere. But if Tintin and the Captain can’t steal the scrolls back from Sakharine, it may be a depressing homecoming…
As you can tell from that summary, the plot is perfectly acceptable, but also pretty standard adventure serial-type stuff. That alone won’t make for a great movie, so equal parts humor and whimsy become extremely important, and for the most part, Tintin hits those marks. Herge was a master of comic timing, but since film is a different medium than comics, the humor can’t hit quite the same beats. There aren’t many truly uproarious moments (to be fair, it’s not a comedy), but a lot of lighthearted geniality is on display, even when the danger to our heroes gets intense. A few of the jokes fall flat (sorry, I’m not having that bit about the Captain breathing into the plane’s fuel tank and the alcohol fumes giving them a boost), but you’ll smile and maybe even chuckle throughout most of the film. Also, there are plenty of little nods to series fans, like the minor but important cameo by Bianca Castafiore, the Milanese Nightengale.
The voice actors did exactly what they’re supposed to do, which is to say not having me constantly thinking of the real person attached to the voice. Jamie Bell, speaking through his officially licensed Elijah Wood voicebox, conveys Tintin’s innocence, excitability, and cool confidence well without making him cocky, and I never heard Daniel Craig (or James Bond) coming out of Sakharine’s mouth. Likewise, I probably wouldn’t have pegged Thompson and Thomson as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, maybe because they were banging on about pickpockets and bowler hats rather than zombies. Saying that Captain Haddock didn’t sound like Gollum feels a bit like damning with faint praise, but I was too distracted by the idea that the Captain is Scottish(?) to realize I have no idea what Andy Serkis really sounds like. (Fact: Andy Serkis sounds exactly like Gollum in real life.)
Finally, I’ll mention that the motion capture animation was very smooth and fluid, as you’d expect. There’s still a slight amount of creepiness that comes with seeing images that look and sound like humans but seem about halfway between real people and cartoons. I’m not going to lie, a traditionally animated Tintin would have been perfectly fine with this ancient codger, but as my first ever 3-D movie experience, it was hard to find fault with how the movie looked.
If I don’t sound blown away by Tintin, it’s probably because the books were such a nostalgic treat for me; not a major cornerstone of my youth, really, but a very fondly remembered one. The movie was never going to be able to duplicate that feeling without actually making me 11 years old again (and for THAT, I would pay 3-D movie prices again), nor could I ever expect it to. But don’t let that dissuade you from checking out what is a very good cartoon adventure movie. As an animated children’s version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s never going to be as good as that movie, nor its own source material, but those are pretty lofty standards. The fact that it’s even in the same vicinity is impressive, and certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.
- At one point, Snowy chases a Siamese cat. In the comics, this cat belongs to the Captain, and Snowy has a long-running adversarial relationship with it.
- A copy of ‘Le Petit Vingtieme’ is shown at one point. Le Petit Vingtieme is the newspaper where Tintin was originally published.
- During the rather awesome opening credits sequence, there is a bit where Tintin goes into a train station and we see the train listings, which display the names of the co-producers. Alongside these are a number of places that Tintin visits in the books, including several purely fictional locations such as Syldavia, Wadesdah and San Theodoros.
- In the movie, the model Unicorns have furled sails. In the original, they’re bare-masted.
- While I hesitate to recommend something that I haven’t personally experienced, those Tintin fans who want something a little closer to the books might want to check out the Adventures of Tintin tie-in game, in all versions except those for the Android and IOS. A little research shows that Haddock is portrayed much more like the original, Sakharine is not the villain, and the storyline generally plays out much closer to that of Secret of the Unicorn. The Android and IOS versions are much closer to the movie.
- When startled out of a drunken stupor, Captain Haddock yells, “The giant rat of Sumatra!” This is a reference to one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s favorite tricks in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Every so often, Doyle would tweak readers by having Watson offhandedly reference cases that either could not be told or “the world was not yet ready to hear about.” The most famous of these “hidden cases” was called The Giant Rat of Sumatra.
- This film combines elements of 3 different Tintin books: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure. That’s why some of the elements in the movie don’t entirely fit — for instance, the Armenian vessel Karaboudjan was used for smuggling opium in The Crab with the Golden Claws, and has nothing to do with the treasure hunt of the other two books. In the books, Sakharine was far more benign, a simple model ship collector who wanted to buy Tintin’s Unicorn model, but knew nothing of the scroll hidden inside and was not Red Rackham’s descendent.
- In many countries, the film’s subtitle is “Secret of the Unicorn,” but that does not appear to be the case in the U.S.
- Captain Haddock was introduced about a third of the way into the series; before then, Tintin and Snowy adventured alone. In the film, the framed newspapers in Tintin’s apartment reference many of these early cases, including Cigars of the Pharoah/The Blue Lotus, The Broken Ear, The Black Island, and King Ottokar’s Sceptre. I love that they did that but wish they’d been more subtle, just letting observant fans notice the articles in the background rather than zooming in on each of them one after the other.
- The artist painting a caricature of Tintin at the beginning of the film is Herge, Tintin’s creator. The other portraits glimpsed depict many of the other major and minor characters from the series.
Street vendor: “Name his price”? Ten years I’ve been floggin’ brick-a-brack, and I miss ‘name your price’ by one bleedin’ minute!
Captain Haddock: I’ll not be doubted by some pipsqueak tuft of ginger and his irritating dog! I am master and commander of the seas!
Tintin: Mrs. Finch! A man’s been shot on our doorstep!
Mrs. Finch: Not again?
Captain Haddock: My heart was in my mouth, I don’t mind tellin’ you! Well, that is, if it was my heart; you know, judgin’ by my stomach, it could have been anything, really…
Thomson: It was childishly simple.
Thompson: Simply childish, I agree.
Captain Haddock: What is this peculiar liquid? There’s no bouquet, it’s completely transparent…
Leftenant Delcourt: Why, it’s water!
Captain Haddock: Ah, what will they think of next?
Captain Haddock: My memory is not what it used to be.
Tintin: Well, what did it used to be?
Captain Haddock: I’ve forgotten.
Allan: Mr. Tin… (checks note) …Tin?
Captain Haddock: Double-dealing pilfering parasites!
Captain Haddock: I thought you were an optimist.
Tintin: Well, you were wrong, weren’t you? I’m a realist.
Captain Haddock: Ah, that’s just another name for a quitter!
Street vendor: American, he was. All hair-oil and no socks.
Captain Haddock: (repeated line) Nobody takes my ship!
Captain Haddock: Oh Jupiter, I have a beard! Since when do I have a beard?
Tintin: He lost his eyelids?
Captain Haddock: Aye. Now that was a card game to remember!
Thomson: (grabs newspaper) Great Scotland Yard! That’s extraordinary!
Tintin: What is?
Thomson: Worthington’s have a half-price sale on bowler hats!
Thompson: (snatches it away) Really, Thomson! This is hardly the time… Great Scotland Yard!
Thomson: What is it?
Thompson: Canes are half-priced, too!
Tintin: Bad news, Captain – we’ve only got one bullet.
Captain Haddock: What’s the good news?
Tintin: We’ve got one bullet.
Captain Haddock: Nobody takes my ship!
Tintin: They’ve already taken it.
Captain Haddock: Right; nobody takes my ship twice!
Captain Haddock: Aah! The Giant Rat of Sumatra!
Thompson: We haven’t got a clue what he was working on.
Thomson: Quite right, Thomson. We’re completely clueless.
Captain Haddock: There are plenty of others willing to call you a failure – a fool, a loser, a hopeless souse… Don’t you ever say it of yourself! You send out the wrong signal, that is what people pick up. D’you understand? You care about something, you fight for it. You hit a wall, you push through it. There’s something you need to know about failure, Tintin – you can never let it defeat you.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Dick Tracy