The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Tintin

Steven Spielberg’s big missed opportunity. Reviewed by Robert O’Connor. WARNING: may contain spoilers!

Two goats are sitting on a back lot in Hollywood, chewing on cans of film. One remarks “This is terrible!” and the other one says, “The book is better.”

A few weeks before his death in 1983, Hergé signed the movie rights of his creation Tintin to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, he believed, was the only director capable of recreating his creation on the big screen. He came to this conclusion after seeing and loving Raiders of the Lost Ark, which the French press compared at the time to a Tintin adventure.

In the late ’80s and ’90s, there was a renaissance of traditional animation in both movies and television. Spielberg was partially responsible for it, producing animated movies that captured the public imagination like An American Tail, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He also produced animated shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs that revived the spirit of the old Warner Brothers cartoons. But he didn’t make a Tintin movie.

Then he saw the motion-capture technology pioneered by WETA studios and its head, Peter Jackson, and saw that as the way to make the Tintin movie. And so he has, almost 30 years later. The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, should be a warning to not sit on an idea until its too late to bring it to fruition.

The movie is a combination of two Tintin stories, The Crab with the Golden Claws and Secret of the Unicorn. I’m not against combining the stories for film adaptations, since the originals were serialized in a Belgian newspaper and, as with most serialized works there would be pacing issues in a faithful movie adaptation.

The movie starts out with a brilliant title sequence by Kuntzel and Deygas, the same team that made the titles for the much better Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can. The opening scene, with Hergé painting a caricature of Tintin (Jamie Bell), is a nice nod to the character’s creator. John Williams’ music in the opening credits and opening scene are light, but lively, with accordions and pianos dominating. Tintin buys a model of a ship, the Unicorn, and is accosted by two men who demand he sell it to them. One of them is Ivan Sakharine, who shows up later. Sakharine’s men steal it from Tintin’s apartment because of a scroll hidden in the ship’s mast with a cryptic message on it.

In the original story, Sakharine was an antique collector who owned another model of the Unicorn. He is originally a suspect of the theft of Tintin’s model, but his model is stolen as well by the Bird brothers, who own the third model. The Bird brothers own Marlinspike Hall, which is owned by Sakharine in the movie.

Tintin is then knocked out and put on the SS Karaboudjan as a prisoner of Sakharine. It’s here that Tintin meets Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), who has a Scottish accent. It makes his famous swearing funnier and while he says all the required curses (“blistering barnacles”, “thundering typhoons”, etc.) he doesn’t use them as often in the movie as in the books. He also tends to growl more than shout. Haddock has been kept drunk by an endless supply of whisky by his first mate Allan, who is an accomplice of Sakharine in the movie, but in the books was a drug smuggler and the main villain of The Crab with the Golden Claws.

It’s here that the movie really starts to sink. The story of Haddock’s ancestor Sir Francis and his battle with Red Rakham in the comics was a thing that kept the story going. But in the movie it’s a way of providing Captain Haddock with “regaining the family honor” arc that isn’t in the spirit of the comics – and doesn’t entirely resolve itself in the movie anyway. And to make Sakharine not only a villain (complete with a falcon that does his evil bidding) but Red Rakham’s descendent, complete with lines about old scores to settle is just idiotic. These stories weren’t grand tales of revenge, or eternal battles fought across lifetimes like in Hindu myths, they were a rollicking good time.

Tintin, Snowy and Haddock escape the boat and capture a seaplane piloted by Sakharine’s men. In the original story, the plane firing on them was suspenseful because the reader didn’t know Allan had sent the pilots. In the movie they know Sakharine sent the plane because the plane is seen on the deck of the Karaboudjan at least twice. The plane is forced to land in the desert due to a storm.

And right here in the movie is a moment that had my mouth hanging open. Well after I left the movie I couldn’t believe this moment happened. Such a moment happened in Spielberg’s last movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, right at the beginning, where Indy hides in a fridge to survive a nuclear bomb. But that was at the beginning, and this moment is in the middle.

The plane is flying through a storm and the Captain is drinking rubbing alcohol – there’s no whisky on the plane. Snowy’s having some too (at least Snowy is in character). Because of the plane’s wild flying, the alcohol floats in the air like in space (physics? what’s that?) and the two of them try to catch it with their mouths. This happens in another Tintin story, Explorers on the Moon, where the characters head to the moon and the rocket loses gravity. It was funny there because they were in space. Here, it just doesn’t make sense.

And then, Tintin suggests pouring the rubbing alcohol in the gas tank to give them extra fuel. And Captain Haddock belches into the tank. And it keeps the engine going. It’s supposed to be funny, but I sat there astounded that such a moment exists. It’s made worse by having Haddock climb out of the plane and get tossed around by the propellers as the plane lands. In the original story he never got out of the plane, which crashed because he tried wrestling the controls away from Tintin while drunk on whisky – the real Captain Haddock never drank rubbing alcohol.

A while later, they arrive in the fictional Moroccan port of Bagghar, learning that Omar Ben Salaad has the third model of the Unicorn behind a bullet-proof glass case. In The Crab with the Golden Claws, Omar was the leader of the drug cartel Allan was a part of. Captain Haddock retells the story of his ancestor Sir Francis, but in the movie there’s an additional idiotic layer that as he tells the story he “enters the mind” of his ancestor – this is absent in the comic.

Longtime fans of Tintin may have noticed that up until now I haven’t mentioned two staples of Tintin’s adventures, the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson. Well, that’s because in the movie they barely appear. They have one good laugh at the beginning when one of them falls down the stairs. In the movie they appear in Bagghar in disguise, as they do in The Crab with the Golden Claws, but in the original they were looking for a murderer. In the movie, they’re just there because the movie decided they hadn’t been in the movie enough.

Another staple of Tintin stories, Professor Cuthbert Calculus, is omitted entirely, which I guess makes sense since he doesn’t appear until Red Rakham’s Treasure, the story that follows The Secret of the Unicorn. Rumor has it that there will be a sequel to the movie with Peter Jackson directing it this time. Maybe he’ll appear then.

The soprano Bianca Castafiore, who appears in none of the stories I’ve mentioned so far, makes her appearance here, performing in a special audience for Omar Ben Salaad. The only explanation I can come up with for her appearing in this thing is so the special effects people can show off how well they can show glass breaking.

The movie uses motion-capture technology for the actors. The problem with this is that the characters are made to look real while keeping their cartoonish looks. Some liberties are taken – Tintin is given big blue eyes instead of the black dots he has in the comic – but big noses and other exaggerated features are kept in the movie. There’s a theory in robotics about the “uncanny valley,” where a robot (or anything made to resemble a human) that sort of looks human is pleasing, but a robot that is too similar to humans is repulsive.

The point I’m driving at is that the people in Tintin are made to look real, but they’re not pleasant to look at. Bianca Castafiore is especially bad in this regard.

One thing I will say about the movie is that the action sequence that follows is really well done. I saw the movie in 2D, and I can only imagine how it might look in 3D. It would have been even more thrilling if during the rest of the movie the camera had been stationary. All throughout the movie the camera moves around like it stole Haddock’s whisky.

Right afterwards is a scene that would never be in any real Tintin story. Sakharine has the three scrolls that lead to Red Rakham’s treasure and gets away. And Tintin gives up. That’s right, the ever-optimistic, ever-resourceful Tintin, who always has a plan up his sleeve, gives up. And he snaps out of it only after Captain Haddock, who in the comics is always ready to quit and go home, makes a speech straight out of a thousand other sappy movies about not letting failure get to you.

At the end of the adventure, Sakharine is carted off to jail after a ludicrous sword fight with Haddock where they refer to each other as Sir Francis and Red Rakham like they’re reincarnations of their ancestors. Captain Haddock gets Marlinspike Hall back after discovering the secret of the unicorn, at least he does in the comic, I’m not sure about the movie. The movie ends when they decide to go after Red Rakham’s treasure at the bottom of the ocean, which they change in the movie to Haddock’s treasure that Red Rakham tried to steal. Also, the secret coordinates of the treasure on the three scrolls in the comics tell of the location of the ship at the bottom of the ocean, not Marlinspike Hall as in the movie.

Why did Spielberg not make the movie in 2D during the animation renaissance? Why did he allow the compromises and bastardizations made when he could’ve used his clout to stay firm and faithful to the classic stories that were just fine as they were? And why does Omar have an Easter Island statue in his courtyard? These are all questions I would like answered.

But on the bright side, maybe newbies will see the movie and want to pick up the comics. Hopefully they come to the conclusion that the comics are much better than the movie.

Two episodes from the 1990s cartoon adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin:
The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn

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2 Responses to The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

  1. Marcus J says:

    Good review – what an absolutely appalling adaptation this was. Breathtakingly shit, really unbelievable. A crane fight!?!

  2. Robert O'Connor says:

    Cranes and empty steam factories are the last refuge of lazy writing of action movies.

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