With the dual releases of ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’, the Spielberg I remember from my youth returns to the big screen. Both films have a kind of wide-eyed wonder and narrative simplicity that serves to make them feel like matinee adventures from decades past. Both have their flaws, but both have a giddy childlike joy I haven’t seen from Spielberg in years, and both employ modern technology in evoking old-school thrills. Of the two, I prefer ‘Tintin, which takes a beloved international character and essentially casts him in a Young Indiana Jones adventure that smashes that Crystal Skull Kingdom all to pieces.
I first met Tintin, fearless boy reporter, and his trusty dog Snowy, about the same time I met the chicken pox. I was 7 years old and quarantined to my room, with only an ominous crate of comics from my father to keep me company. Stuffed in there was one of Hergé’s Tintin adventures, and the clear, colorful illustrations swam before my eyes, introducing me to a world of pirates, treasure, drunken sea captains, bumbling inspectors, and of course Tintin himself. At that time, ironically, it dawned on me that Tintin was a less grizzled and more chipper Indiana Jones, and apparently Hergé himself saw a similar connection because he once famously suggested Spielberg as the most fitting director for Tintin. What’s interesting is that while no one would have argued that the Spielberg of 1987 would have been up to this, there was plenty of room for doubt in 2011. Thankfully, it looks like Tintin and the challenge of the motion-capture animation used to bring his world to life, were exactly what the doctor ordered.
The subject matter is perfectly suited to animation and sits in what many a child of the 80’s would consider Steven’s wheelhouse. Tintin, voiced with plucky exuberance by Jamie Bell, is a young reporter for whom the word intrepid seems to have been specifically created; he’s always gallivanting off on globetrotting mysteries with his faithful dog Snowy, usually shadowed by two Interpol inspectors charmingly named Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg). ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ finds Tintin in an open-air market, discovering a curious model of an old sailing ship and running afoul of the suspicious Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig). This sets off a series of thrilling interludes that take Tintin all around the world, including a chase through a seaside Moroccan village that takes the vehicular chase from Raiders and turns it up to 11. Along the way, Tintin meets one of his most invaluable traveling companions; the perpetually alcohol soaked Captain Archibald Haddock, a somber—but not often sober—sea captain whose family line sits at the center of the mystery involving the cargo of the Unicorn.
There’s an energy and imagination employed in the action scenes that renders them some of the most exciting filmmaking I’ve seen all year, and in the animated venue, Spielberg has found a freedom from reality that fuels his better instincts. Previously, if you had asked me how Tintin should be imagined on the screen I would have said 2D animation with a patient, detail-obsessed artist like Sylvan Chomet (The Illusionist) at the helm. Here, I am proved wrong, and even the attempt to make Herge’s simple drawings more humanly realistic pays off—the characters are instantly recognizable and also surprisingly lifelike. The dead-eyes of Polar Express and Beowulf have been left in the dust. Snowy is best served by this more fluid take, and he’s more than just Tintin’s faithful dog, he’s one of the most endearing of the film’s excesses. Little details make him seem plausibly doglike even though he’s has a preternatural intelligence that means he could easily outwit Indy’s own Short-round.
Spielberg never slows down for Tintin, but he’s still crammed a treasure trove of interesting tidbits into every frame. Newspaper clippings hanging on Tintin’s wall tell of his other exploits, a mad-dash run with Snowy over car-tops and cow-tops, as it were, lets us see every nook and cranny of the hero’s hometown. The animators and actors commit to making this universe a place of rich mystery and whimsical asides. I was most delighted by a throwaway scene in which Tintin, Haddock and Snowy are trying to get their hands on a key that Haddock assures will aid their escape from Sahkarine. Tintin is carefully trying to reach out and grab the key from the slipping, sliding—and sleeping—crew members while Snowy is doing the same for a bit of sandwich on the other, with Haddock at the door trying to coerce a bottle of whiskey from its perch. The way the scene ends up, each of their pursuits come together in a comic mash-up.
The movie is full of stuff like this, and it never lurches into territory that feels too dark. Although the gunfire seems a bit more pronounced here than in Herge’s work, that might well be because the bullets fly at your face in intended 3D and at best the comics gave you jagged little boxes that went ‘bang!’ There are three set pieces in the film that are among the best that Spielberg has ever done. One of them is that previously mentioned race through Morocco, where Tintin and Haddock pursue the bad guys while a rushing wall of water chases all involved down the winding, hilly road leading to the sea. In live action this would have been nightmarishly expensive and less comical. It would have been too real, too fearsome and too grounded to appropriately capture that spirit belonging to the Tintin comics. Another takes place in the whiskey-clotted brain of Haddock, remembering in a briefly sober period, the story his grandfather told him about what happened to Sir Francis Haddock and the Unicorn. Crafted like the best lost scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, this reverie pits two ships, one of them the triple-decked, cannon-laden Unicorn and the other the pirate ship of the dreaded Red Rackham, against one another in a gravity defying battle on stormy, wind-swept seas. In that moment, Spielberg is in full command of his talents, and there’s something grand not just about the action in the scene—with one ship swinging like a pendulum above the other—but in the way he cleverly intercuts with the present day action, emphasizing both how painful and triumphant it is for Haddock to grasp this long lost piece of his heritage. Haddock and Sahkarine face off in the final dust-up that involves two mammoth cranes being used as if they were rapiers in a duel. It’s a bit of overkill but so much great fun we barely care.
And about that Haddock, he’s clearly the movie’s ace in the hole. To say he is voiced by Andy Serkis doesn’t really cover it—more like embodied, summoned and then exorcised perhaps. He’s blustery, barrel-fisted and given to the best kinds of colorful exasperations and his self-defeating alcoholism is given the most definition of any trait in the movie. This is as it should be, the film never takes it too lightly, but doesn’t drench it in inappropriate emotional seriousness either. Spielberg walks a careful line, and we get moments where Haddock wants to help Tintin and regrets his human frailties amidst scenes where alcohol basically functions for Archibald in the same capacity that spinach does for Popeye. He’s gruff and lovable, and in the Unicorn, he’s the emotional centerpiece of the story. Because he’s an irreplaceable staple of the Tintin cannon, we can expect more Haddock in the sequels. This is a very good thing.
If there’s a weakness to Spielberg’s take on Tintin—which features plenty of flourishes also indicative of its co-producer Peter Jackson, scheduled to direct the sequel—it’s the absolutely relentless pace at which it’s conducted. Not only is there never a single dull moment, there’s also never a contemplative one, which occasionally creates a tone that doesn’t glom with the gentle rhythms of the comics. Spielberg fashions some ingenious transitions to move from one setting or event to the next—like the sea around Haddock’s rowboat becoming a puddle that Mr. Silk walks in—but this device means that he needn’t provide much breathing room between the action. It’s like a coffee-addled child rapid-fire thumbing through one of the Tintin books and then throwing at the wall when he’s done with a triumphant scream. But what’s most important is that Spielberg does take us through the world of Tintin, and he makes it a place of grand mysteries and exquisite thrills and he unearths a true buried treasure; his own, gloriously individual thirst for adventure, which proves to be unquenchable after all these years.