A young man sits for his portrait by a street cartoonist. The artist notes that his subject looks familiar and asks if he’s drawn him before. Finally, he finishes his work and hands the drawing over. “I believe I’ve captured something of your likeness,” he says proudly. And indeed he has, with the perfectly oval head, tiny nose, and dotted eyes — exactly as that artist, Hergé himself, drew him for fifty years. It’s a fitting tribute, even if you can see it coming, and it’s a nice moment for those like me who have followed that young man for a healthy portion of our lives. He is, of course, the trench-coated and tuft-haired boy reporter Tintin.
When I heard that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were teaming up to make a movie based on the Tintin comics, I was both nervous and excited. These are two Hollywood demigods we’re talking about, but for me Tintin has been equally sacred. In this age of reinvented heroes, he was getting his one chance at bat. It would take a special touch to do this properly. Fortunately, my fears were all in my head. They have captured something of Tintin’s likeness.
The same magic that was in those comics is undoubtedly in this film. Adventure is still the key word in this story, not action; there are fights and chases galore, but they achieve the desired adrenaline rush from fluidity and suspense rather than quick cutting and confusing angles. Not just humour, but the same sense of humour as Hergé’s comics is present throughout, with a mix of slapstick and wordplay that is charming and genuinely funny. Cartoon physics are on display in virtually every scene, which keeps things light and magical. And most importantly, though the plot is both a mashup of a couple different adventures (primarily The Secret of The Unicorn) and drastically different from either of them, the characters have not been altered in the least. Tintin is still the boy reporter, a title that no other fictional character in the world can lay claim to. He still has the heart of gold and the qualities of an everyman. Captain Haddock steals the show with his quick temper and quicker taste for whiskey. The Thom(p)son twins are the Chaplinesque but dependable comic relief they always were. It’s a joy to see them come to life so fully.
There has been a fair share of “Hollywoodization” to the universe, however, none of which is all that unpleasant. The action scenes especially are plussed beyond even the wildest dreams of James Bond. The major setpiece is a car chase through the streets of fictional Bagghar that never even cuts to a different shot, but swings around as if on some impossible crane and holds its momentum as the audience holds its breath. A bit of the self-analysis that characters in modern films tend to do also creeps in (they say things like “I am like this and you are different in this way and that’s why we work so well together”, as a broad example). But none of it hurts or feels like an injustice against the tone of the original comics.
One of the things that made me nervous about the movie was motion capture CGI. I admit I was slightly prejudiced, since I’ve never seen one these pseudo-animated movies. At first I thought the technology was mainly a shortcut way for live-action directors to make animated movies without having any experience as animators, which feels like cheating to me. But while I still think there’s room for that opinion, the more I think about it the more I think it resembles the time-honoured art form of puppetry. In all the different forms of puppetry, performers manipulate a character through their movements while never appearing onstage themselves. Motion capture is like so many things of the digital age: a high-tech version of something that’s been around for centuries. Some have suggested that it could be used to make entirely human characters that are indistinguishable from filmed actors. Personally, nothing could be more distasteful to me in a movie, but for those projects where a certain stylization is required like The Adventures of Tintin, it seems to be an interesting technique.
And the way they have translated the faces of the original characters is outstanding. Tintin’s face is still honest and open and shows his earnest love of adventure. Captain Haddock’s has the necessary careworn weariness of a seadog combined with a kind of childlike quality. Perhaps the only stumbling block the movie makes in this regard is the Thompsons. I felt their expressions in the movie were a little too dumbfounded compared to the way Hergé drew them. It’s their nature to be dumbfounded of course, but their faces always had a confidence that told you they were completely unaware of their own haplessness. But it’s a relatively minor quibble in a film full of positives.
Over the many years that I’ve read Tintin, one sequence has always been a highlight: the flashback scene in The Secret of The Unicorn where Captain Haddock recounts the story of his ancestor’s battle with the pirate Red Rackham. There have been many times when I’ve gone back to just read those few pages again. The excitement just flows from panel to panel and displays the real power of comics. To my surprise, the movie matches that power almost completely. Using the language of cinematic movement and the unique style that animation affords, the excitement still flows gracefully and more than a couple of transitions are simply stunning. And imagine my delight when my favourite dialogue exchange between Tintin and Haddock involving a bottle of rum was kept word for word. I could have jumped and down with glee if it wouldn’t have been so embarrassing in a public place.
Surely you don’t need me to say anything more about this movie? I’ve gushed over it enough for a lifetime. If you have no idea who Tintin is or what this movie is about, there are worse introductions to these fantastic stories. If your copies of the books are falling apart like some of mine are, you have your wish come true: a chance to meet once more your old friends and follow them on a brand new, faithful adventure.
“How’s your thirst for adventure, Captain?” says the boy reporter with a smile to his new friend. The reply comes with a look towards the horizon.