And so we come to one of the most significant releases of the year, at least as far as I’m concerned. Collaborators Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have brought to life Hergé’s hugely popular stories of Tintin, the be-quiffed journalist detective and his white fox-terrier Snowy in state of the art mo-cap animation. I’ll confess I’ve always liked Tintin but have never read any of his comic books (something I aim to rectify as soon as possible) but have fond memories of watching the cartoon as a kid and I’ve been looking forward to this release with great anticipation. Some of the early reviews have been a little mixed, inevitably Tintin purists have found the faults they were always going to find and the usual criticisms of motion capture animation have been raised with equal predictability. I live and breathe adventure storytelling and there are few things I love more than animation – all of its forms. Considering these things it’s fair to say that The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn is perfect for me and I have great pleasure in saying that this long-anticipated picture exceeds all my expectations.
The film gets off to a flying start with an outstanding, brilliantly stylised and action-packed opening credits sequence reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can that uses silhouetted characters to depict a taste of Tintin’s exciting adventures, and even recreates that iconic image of Tintin and Snowy running in front of an orange spotlight. It sets the scene for a relentlessly breathless and eventful movie that moves quickly and provides some truly spectacular set pieces.
After a clever little introduction for the spirited young Belgian which I won’t spoil the plot wastes no time in getting going. Whilst wandering around a bric-a-brac market Tintin (Jamie Bell) comes across a magnificent model of the Unicorn, a Charles II man of war ship which he delightedly buys seconds before two other men arrive with the same intention. His curiosity piqued, Tintin pays a visit to the library to read up on the fate of the real Unicorn, captained by Sir Francis Haddock and returns home to find the model stolen. Before long he finds himself a prisoner on an ocean steamer where he meets Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis) and the pair set off on a race against the nefarious Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig) in search of Sir Francis’ treasure.
One of the common criticisms of the film has been directed towards the plot with some critics labelling it too complex but I honestly can’t see why as it seems like a fairly straightforward treasure hunt to me, one designed to maximise the potential for globetrotting, exciting encounters and character comedy.
Tintin regular Professor Cuthbert Calculus may be absent, cited for an appearance in the Jackson-directed sequel but Interpol’s most inept, Thomson and Thompson (no relation) are present and correct courtesy of the unlikely presence of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as they aim to track down a light-fingered pickpocket. Pegg and Frost are almost unrecognisable as the bowler-hatted cane carrying pair, which is probably to their credit and they make the most of their relatively few scenes bringing the memorable characters to suitable life. Daniel Craig has fun playing against type but seems to struggle to make his part truly memorable. Sakharine is clearly the most underwritten character and his motivations are slightly blurry but he’s a perfectly fine boo-hiss baddie. The same can’t be said for Haddock, easily the most interesting character, vividly realised by the king of motion capture, Andy Serkis (who once belonged to the same theatre group at uni that I did albeit at completely different times). Haddock is a deeply flawed man, a hard drinker, scared of sobriety living in the shadow of his greater ancestors. Haddock is the heart and soul of the film which doesn’t quite kick fully into gear before his arrival on screen, the plot largely revolving around the salty seaman and Serkis’ performance is superb. Tintin himself is a character many feel is a little bland, the straight man in the middle with little personality, an observation I understand but don’t quite agree with. Yes Tintin is fairly neutral but his inherent decency, resourcefulness, thirst for adventure and truth and all round likeability make him a hero worth caring about and Jamie Bell does a fine job of interpreting that with a measured characterisation handling action well and hitting the right comic notes. Then there’s the young reporter’s constant companion Snowy who is sure to be every kid’s favourite. Sadly the film makers didn’t customise a mo-cap suit for a real terrier but he’s animated superbly and gets his own entertaining set piece as well as a number of good comic beats.
So what about that divisive motion capture animation? It’s fair to say the medium hasn’t had an easy ride with films like The Polar Express and Beowulf not enjoying the kind of success Robert Zemeckis really wants. The most common complaint about the technique is the ‘dead eye’ effect, which was rife in The Polar Express, a film I happen to rather like (I gave it a very brief review in a roundup a while back). The good news is that a great deal of progress has been made here. Characters emote just as well as those of other animation media and you’ll have no difficulty empathising with Tintin and co. Despite this many opinions of the film have still claimed the realistic character motions and near photo-realistic design are too uncanny but again I have to disagree. The whole point of motion capture is those realistic motions which offer a kind of immersion not possible in other forms of animation. It’s essentially the CGI equivalent to rotascoping and no-one ever complained that A-Ha’s Take On Me video was uncanny. More to the point the quality on show here is extremely high which makes it all the more of a mystery to me when people say the film might as well have been live action. True, certain moments describe a realism so good the argument has merit but some sequences are so visually astounding that they wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of CGI, which is just animation anyway. The characters’ appearance wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable (there are some brilliant noses in there) and the action set pieces are vibrantly spectacular. One sea-bound sequence features the best water effects I’ve ever seen in animation, period, and it’s things like that the film would lose in live action.
So the story and comedy are good, what about the adventure? It’s those set pieces that are the star of the show and they’re many and varied from a hilarious chase sequence that cements Snowy as one of film’s most awesome dogs ever, a flashback sequence featuring a truly epic clash between rival seafarers and the clear standout, a one shot action extravaganza involving a motorbike and sidecar, a falcon, a collapsing dam and a whole lot of excitement. It’s an absolutely unforgettable moment that rather overshadows the climax.
So what next for motion capture? My opinion of this latest effort might be glowing but not everyone agrees with me and there remains some doubt over the medium’s worth. The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn is the best motion capture animation ever made but I don’t think it’s going to make the world fall in love with the style the way Toy Story won the whole world over to CG animation. Perhaps that’s what the medium is lacking, an ambassador of the quality of Toy Story, a great original as opposed to something adapted that tells a brilliant story. But unlike Toy Story, which would have made a magnificent movie in any medium, I think motion capture needs a film that clearly wouldn’t be as brilliant done any other way. Tintin could easily have brilliant in cel or straight up CG animation so it’s not that but it’s definitely better for being animated.
Technically amazing and full of the charm and adventure of the comics, The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn is a rollicking ride packed with memorable moments, great characters and the kind of old-school Spielbergian escapism too seldom found on the big screen these days.