Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reliving Childhood

I have always had a soft spot for Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin. I more or less grew up with the comic books; they were one of the many things that helped me to learn French. Tintin’s adventures are like those of Indiana Jones— there’s often an element of mystery, but there’s plenty of action that could have come right out of a 1930s serial movie. When I learned one of my all-time favourite directors, Steven Spielberg, would be adapting Tintin, I was ecstatic— Spielberg, who directed such classic as Raiders of the Lost Ark, seemed the perfect choice. Unfortunately, I saw the project delayed time and time again—this studio dropped out, this actor left the project, this strike interferes with the script-writing process… The film seemed cursed…

This summer, while I was at the airport in Paris, I went to the bookstore and to my delight found several French mysteries. Then, as I was about to walk off, I noticed another book— this one was about Tintin, specifically the historical events and figures that inspired the various stories. I purchased the book and enthusiastically read it on the flight (as I am unable to sleep on a plane the second it leaves the ground). Thanks to that book I learned just how the idea for a Tintin film struggled even before Steven Spielberg committed himself to the project in the early 80s. Spielberg was a godsend for this series, for he vowed to stay true to Hergé’s vision.

Now the final product has arrived. It was opening night here in our local theatre on the 21st, and I absolutely had to go see a childhood icon of mine on the big screen. I even paid some more money to see it in 3D, a technology I’m often disdainful of, for the simple reason that the 2D version was not being shown just yet. Has Spielberg kept true to his word? Is this the fun, adventurous Tintin I remember from my childhood or does it resonate hollowly now that I’ve gotten older?

An iconic image recreated

I’m glad to report that the film was worth every cent I spent on it— and keep in mind I also took my two younger siblings to see the film (in 3D, mind you)… and I even paid for the theatre’s ridiculously overpriced popcorn! But none of that mattered. For practically two hours, I felt like I was again a child discovering Tintin for the first time. And my siblings were extremely excited about the film as well, unanimously declaring it the best film they saw all year long. To be honest, I’m inclined to agree with them.

The Adventures of Tintin considerably modifies the original stories (combining parts of at least three books into this film), but it stays remarkably true to the spirit of Hergé. I was entranced by the motion-capture technology. It is beautifully done and in my mind is the perfect way to film Hergé’s universe. It is a stylized process, not one that attempts to recreate the world as accurately as possible (which is one of the main failings of the technology when it is misused). It also makes Tintin’s dog Milou (called Snowy in English) look right at home instead of an awkward piece of CGI like the Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks. This is particularly great because Snowy has got to be one of the all-time great fictional dogs: I can’t recall one quite as intelligent or resourceful off the top of my head.

I’m not going to talk about the story just yet because I’d like to gush about the visuals a little bit more. This is Steven Spielberg’s first animated movie and it’s triumphant. There are plenty of astounding visuals, particularly in scene transitions— a hand turns into a dune in the desert, a boat with Tintin and Haddock in it will become part of a puddle that someone steps on, a desert suddenly turns into a raging ocean during a storm, etc. I saw the film in 3D and these transitions just astounded me— this is 3D handled very well, not just as a marketing ploy. At the same time, you won’t miss much by seeing the film in 2D. There really aren’t many sequences that are stand-out 3D moments. There’s one moment where Snowy shows a remarkable presence of mind and chases thugs that kidnap Tintin, and the final action scene involving cranes is simply spectacular. Apart from those moments, the 3D looks nice, but doesn’t add much overall and the technology can cause headaches. (You know it’s a top-notch Steven Spielberg movie when “it looks nice” is a criticism.)

Finally, let’s get to the story. The plot more or less cannibalizes three of Hergé’s works and turns them into a remarkably cohesive narrative. There’s a genuine mystery to be solved and there are some very clever moments of deduction, but this isn’t a puzzle-plot-mystery in the grand manner. It’s first and foremost an adventure. Tintin (Jamie Bell), the infamous Belgian reporter, buys a model ship of The Unicorn when two suspicious characters approach him separately, each trying to convince him to sell the ship. Tintin refuses and at home, the ship accidentally breaks. He doesn’t notice something drop from the mast (despite Snowy’s desperate attempts at communication) and leaves his house. But when he returns, he finds that the ship has been stolen. This starts a terrific adventure when someone is shot right outside Tintin’s doorstep and leaves a message that will get him tied up with very shady smugglers. He comes into contact with the alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) for the first time and they set out to find a treasure that belonged to Haddock’s ancestor. Meanwhile, incompetent detectives Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are searching for a nefarious pickpocket.

The story moves at a rapid pace, barely pausing for breath. It is adventure after adventure, and it is plenty of fun. Many fans were upset at Steven Spielberg’s fourth Indiana Jones movie, but this film proves that Spielberg has still got the moviemaking magic that made him so successful. It is some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time, especially in the movie theatres. Every moment was a wonderful one as the story kept twisting and turning up to its ending, which is a nicely-handled variation on the plot from the original books. I must emphasize here that although the plot does take bits and pieces from several works, it does an admirable job meshing them together and feels like authentic Hergé through-and-through.

The characters look absolutely wonderful—just what the characters from the comic books would look like in a movie. I was particularly astounded at the resemblance of Kim Stengel to Bianca Castafiore, a recurring comic character in the series. Andy Serkis looks just like Captain Haddock, Jamie Bell is a fair representation of Tintin. Their acting is quite strong, with Bell being quite likeable as Tintin and Serkis having a blast as Captain Haddock. Being sober is for him not unlike a psychedelic experience.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are unrecognizable as Thompson and Thomson, and you can just barely tell them apart. Their roles are that of the comic relief and are often centered on slapstick, which is done quite well. But the movie realises that the characters could get annoying in large doses, so we get them in refreshingly small ones. It’s still great fun. They do justice to the original characters, two of my personal favourites.

The film has many clever touches for Tintin fans, which include the cans some bad guys slip on near the end of the film. (I let out a small, appreciative gasp at that point.) I also love the way the film opens, with Tintin getting his portrait drawn… by none other than Hergé himself! Although I’m not an expert on all things Tintin, the comics are close to my heart and seeing the material treated with such respect is certainly an experience to remember.

The film’s opening credits, incidentally, are quite cleverly-designed as John Williams’ music plays over them. It’s basically the entire film summarise in a few minutes, albeit with much left to the imagination. And Williams does a great job with the score. It took me a while to appreciate it, because the score of the French/Canadian TV series is still firmly entrenched in my mind as the Tintin theme song. But Williams might very well surpass it— there are several key moments of the film where his brilliance shines through, and the theme is quite catchy, often reminiscent of Indiana Jones but never sounding like the same tune rearranged.

This is the second movie I’ve seen in theatres in a week— the last was the somewhat-disappointing Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. If you have to pick between these two films, my answer is unhesitating— skip Sherlock and give Tintin a try. The character is legendary in Europe but hasn’t made the transition into North America as easily. I’m not sure why. The series is a pure delight and Steven Spielberg’s film manages to convey that beautifully. It is a great visual experience and some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theatre. This isn’t a slapdash cartoon full of pop-culture references, but a clever film that builds a complex web of intrigue that Tintin tries to find answers to. It’s got plenty of fun action scenes and characters. I was personally glad I spent the money and the somewhat-small crowd, be they young or old, left the theatre today with delighted smiles, myself among them. It stays true to the spirit of Hergé… and can you really ask for much more?


  1. I can't claim to be a part of the Tintin fandom, but I remember watching the cartoons as a little kid and I have a couple of the comic books on the shelves. Anyway, this movie sounds like a lot more fun to go to than Sherlock Holmes and probably will once these busy days are behind us.

    But I have to disagree with you on one point, for mainly nostalgic reasons, but that is on the title for greatest fictional dog - which belongs to Kommissar Rex. No discussion possible on that subject.

  2. It's ben much too long since I read the books to be able to pass judgement but on one thing I am certain - you can put your ham sandwiches away TomCat as you're both wrong! The best fictional canine movie sleuth is Asta from the Thin Man movies, obviously!

  3. Looks like we'll just have to duel it to the death. I still say Milou is one of the, if not *the*, greatest fictional dogs. He's resourceful, intelligent, provides wry commentary on the side (at least for a time in the comic books) and gets right into the action.

    As for the villain in this movie, I forgot to mention that he's even got a pet falcon in the finest tradition of evil villains.

  4. I'm incredibly happy to hear that it's worth watching. I'm pretty sure I did a happy dance around the room when I heard Spielberg was doing Tintin, but still worried that they would find some way to butcher it. Definitely going to see it now if I can somehow squeeze it into my break.

    I can't comment on Kommissar Rex, but Snowy trumps Asta any day.

  5. I'm looking forward to this, but I'm very sorry Prof. Cuthbert Calculus isn't in it. He's my favorite human character in the series.

  6. @Christopher
    I was upset not to see him on the cast list at first, but when I was watching his absence never even entered my mind. Hopefully he comes into play next time- he's such fun!

    @The Aoorebtuce
    It's entirely worth squeezing in somewhere.