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The Adventures of Tintin
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (screenplay), Hergé (comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin")
The Adventures of Tintin
Principal Cast
Daniel Craig -- Ivanovich Sakharine
Jamie Bell -- Tintin
Simon Pegg -- Inspector Thompson
Andy Serkis -- Captain Haddock
Cary Elwes -- Pilot
Toby Jones -- Silk
Nick Frost -- Thomson
Sebastian Roché -- Pedro
Tony Curran -- Lt. Delcourt
Mackenzie Crook -- Tom
Kim Stengel -- Bianca Castafiore
Daniel Mays -- Allan
A review by Seamus Sweeney

Santa Claus, one magical Christmas in the mid-1980s, brought me a stash of Tintin books. "Comics" or "graphic novels" they aren't; they were and always will be "Tintin books." bandes dessinées, as the French call them, are a sort of hybrid form, don't seem to me to fit easily into either the American or Japanese comics/manga tradition, influential as they have been. Anyway, the haul of Tintiniana cemented my belief in Santa for a good few years, aided by a peculiar note (in writing completely unlike my parents) from the great man. I also remember it as shifting the focus of my attention from toys to books.

I would not class myself as a member of "fandom" for any other film/programme/book series/whatever in particular (well, maybe Sherlock Holmes) but I make an exception for Tintin. So to those readers who both dread and long for a cinematic adaption of a beloved book, or original series, I can truly say I feel your pain.

A few years back, apparently Steven Spielberg approached Peter Jackson to see if Jackson's special effects company would CGI-ize Snowy (Tintin's dog, for those not in the know) for a live action adaptation of the adventures of Hergé's most famous creation. Jackson advised Spielberg that live action just wouldn't work; motion capture was the thing.

I'm glad that Spielberg listened to his fellow blockbusterist. Some years ago there was a traditionally animated TV series of Tintin adventures, which while not offensively distorting the originals, was uninspired. The wit, invention, detail and range of Hergé's world was not remotely captured by these tolerable but insipid adventures. I can't imagine live action managing to capture Tintin's world at all successfully; the irony being that the scrupulously realistic plein air style of the original created an air of hyper-reality which would make live action look bland.

I'm also glad Spielberg has avoided one of the besetting temptations of Tintin adaptions; camping it up, drawing attention to the absurdity of the boy detective, with no family or romantic attachments whatsoever, mixing it in a worldly milieu of thieves and desperadoes. The Adventures of Tintin is an adventure film, pure and simple. The only woman to be seen is the Milanese nightingale herself, Bianca Castafiore, and her only function is to sing (though in so doing she advances the plot ingeniously) There have been various novels and plays depicting a disillusioned Tintin grappling with the problems of sex and general cynicism in the modern world; such a conceit illustrates why the words "undergraduate" and "sophomoric" are pejorative in literary or any artistic criticism.

The Adventures of Tintin have never been published in North America; in an era where Hollywood film making is increasingly seen as a risk-averse profit-driven sequel factory (though was it ever thus?), Spielberg is to be lauded for taking a multi-multi-million dollar risk on Tintin. Or perhaps it marks a further sign of the geopolitical power shifts of the modern world; no longer does a character have to be Big In America to merit the full blockbuster treatment.

The Canandian writer Brendan Blom, in a piece written in 2007, writes about how his childhood love of Tintin books (influenced by a Dutch father) marked him out as separate from other Canadian kids of the same age. It would be interesting to know how popular the books are in Quebec (or indeed in the rather more soi-disant part of the Francophonie, Louisiana). Appropriately enough, a Scot (Steven Moffat, lead writer for Doctor Who and co-creator of the wonderful BBC modernisation of Conan Doyle, Sherlock) and two Englishmen (Joe Cornish, director of Attack the Block and Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Paul) wrote the screenplay, fairly faithfully drawn from three of the books -- The Crab With The Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure. I can't help feeling that this must have been a dream assignment for the three credited screenwriters (it certainly would be one of mine).

And how is it? Not half bad, actually. No adaption will ever satisfy Tintin fandom utterly, and already the film has garnered some quite hostile reviews and commentary -- for instance this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. While I can understand this critique to a degree (the Tintin books are indeed "great art," this film isn't) it is more than a bit harsh to call this film "thuggishly moronic."

Perhaps I am not such a fanboy after all, even of Tintin, but this film is best approached with low to medium expectations. It is a straightforward adventure story, one that may even seem a little creaky to contemporary tastes. And what is more enjoyable than a straightforward adventure story, especially one a little creaky to contemporary tastes?

I am now going to issue a mild spoiler alert, before discussing the pros and cons of the film. Mild because I won't be giving any really crucial plot points away, but a spoiler nevertheless as the hardcore Tintin fans will want to see for themselves what Spielberg has done to their beloved. I will sort these points under the headings Borduria (for the negative ones) and Syldavia (for the positive ones). Fans will recognise the two Mitteleuropean powers locked in perpetual Manichean Cold War (even down to a successful, albeit stowaway-ridden, moon shot from Syldavia).

Borduria: Thomson and Thompson. In the books, the mishaps of the near-identical moustachioed detectives are reliably entertaining. In the film, their malapropisms are leaden and their motion-captured selves are strangely tubby and unconvincing. Having said that, they do have a nice scene with the kleptomaniac (don't worry, it isn't a big deal).

Syldavia: While Snowy doesn't contribute unheard comments as in the books, he is a convincingly animated, cute-yet-fierce doggy.

Borduria: I didn't think Captain Haddock was a disaster, but he wasn't the linchpin that he is the later books. Is it any coincidence that the books chosen by the moviemakers to adapt are those in which Haddock makes his first appearance? The earlier books seem pallid and lacking beside the later ones; the primary reason being the advent of Haddock. While Andy Serkis' (the go-to guy for motion capture, what with Gollum and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) performance is sturdily adequate, this Haddock is burdened with a slightly jarring Scottish accent (why should this be jarring? Maybe because, as the most verbally vivid Tintin character, Haddock has made an impression on the reader that is shaken by too much specificity).

Syldavia: Tintin himself. Neither camped up nor too sickly sweet, the boy detective is an effective lead character. In a fictional world inhabited by such larger than life figures as Haddock and Professor Calculus, Tintin is an oddly uncharismatic figure. He essentially incarnates the boy scout spirit Hergé always professed to hold. Jamie Bell does a great job of breathing life (albeit motion-captured life) into this potentially wooden incarnation of do-goodery. Bell's Tintin is brisk, to the point, impatient, and effective in the pursuit of adventure.

Borduria: I am not that sure how effective the film will be in luring a new generation into Tintin. It is quite scary for young children. One wonders will older children in this media-saturated age find the adventure story a little old-fashioned. Of course, as Brendan Blom's article hints, a certain snobbery attaches itself to Tintinolatory; you wouldn't want the film to be too populist.

Syldavia: The great set piece that is Tintin, the Captain, and Snowy's trip to the emirate of Bagghar. This is an outstanding sequence brimming with fun and invention. What I particularly liked was the subtlety of the details. At the very start, we see the citizens of Bagghar queuing for scarce water; the sultan himself lives in a lush palace. Skipping forward over the enjoyable bits of business in the palace, our heroes depart pursuing the villain while being pursued by the Sultan's men. In so doing they inadvertently bust a dam; we see water flowing down empty channels, joyous citizens filling their water jars at last. No character explicitly comments, and much of the detail is fleeting and in the background, but the nature of the Sultan's rule is evoked with great wit and economy. Those moments of telling detail were the essence of the Tintin books; in some set pieces at least, Spielberg has managed to capture the spirit of the adventures of Tintin.

Copyright © 2011 Seamus Sweeney

Seamus Sweeney is a freelance writer and medical graduate from Ireland. He has written stories and other pieces for the website and other publications. He is the winner of the 2010 Molly Keane Prize. He has also written academic articles as Seamus Mac Suibhne.

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