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SpielBLOG – The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

Every time Steven Spielberg makes a movie it seems to be a passion project or a childhood dream. The Adventures of Tintin has its origins in Spielberg’s life from just after Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, when Spielberg noted that French reviews kept citing Tintin as an influence.

Belgian cartoonist Hergé died soon after Spielberg got in touch and as with many projects, years passed with the option renewed from 1983 and development of a live-action movie always being put back. Spielberg recruited fellow Tintin fan Peter Jackson to work on the special effects and a script was written by British writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, who conflated three of Hergé’s books: The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944).

With Jackson on board as a future director of a following installment for a potential trilogy, the film became a motion capture-based CGI animation and looked to be a surefire hit. And it performed well at the box office and critically for the most part, yet the sequel never went ahead. Part of this is straightforward economics. With Spielberg receiving his customary 30% of the gross, Jackson – with many hugely successful films in his back pocket – would be expected to ask for a similar deal and the profit margins for the studios is reduced to a ‘why bother?’ figure.

But what about the film itself. There’s no doubt it is entertaining, but as with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull it relies on one or two set pieces and the rest of the storytelling is fairly perfunctory. Ace reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) – along with trusty dog Snowy – must seek clues in model ships to unravel a mystery and locate a hidden treasure. Along the way, he picks up help from Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis)

There is a video-gameness about the quest and despite the state of the art technology, the CGI is not yet out of the uncanny valley. In fact with the motion capture providing realistic movement, it sometimes looks like real people are wearing animation. The problem, remember, with the uncanny valley is not that it is unrealistic but that it is disturbingly too realistic. It is much better to have something highly stylized that behaves according to its own rules rather than something that behaves according to the rules of the real world but is palpably not real. It also doesn’t help that Spielberg is obviously pushing the technology as far as it can go. This was his first animated feature and so he is moving the ‘camera’ around as much as possible; characters are poking things at the screen to accentuate the 3D effects.

Another problem with the story is how much of it seems to rely on Captain Haddock being an alcoholic. This isn’t some ‘political correctness gone mad’ objection. It just feels creaky to spend so much time on it in what is ostensibly a children’s film.

All of that said, the film does look good and the action is exciting, especially the final chase. Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis carry most of the weight human acting side but Daniel Craig also makes for a convincing villain. The period detail is really great and I particularly liked the interior of the ship. The world itself felt very convincing. It’s just the people who I’m not sure of. Like when Tintin has to get a key from one of the slumbering sailors that keep falling from one bunk to another, it becomes like a form of Tetris and I don’t believe one second of it. Perhaps this is true to the books. I don’t know. I was never really a Tintin fan. He was one of those Famous Five type characters with far too much vim to be truly not punchable.

As recently as last year both Jackson and Spielberg were keen to point out that the next Tintin film was still going ahead. I’m not sure if there is a real audience waiting. Although critically the film was admired and – as stated before – it made some decent money, a lot of that money won’t have gone to the studio. And the public didn’t seem to fall in love with the character.

Spielberg post-Tintin seemed keen to move on and make something different. The next film would feel like an amalgam of a Boy’s Own adventure and some of the heavier themes from his more serious films.

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