Tintin – now inspiring audiences in 3D

The Adventures of Tintin (Spielberg, 2011), Paramount, Columbia, 107 minutes

I didn’t know it at the time, but reading Tintin comics as a kid was perhaps the greatest influence on my current career aspirations. Over the course of 56 years – and 24 books – the adventurous reporter found himself in all kinds of chaotic circumstances, stumbling into dozens upon dozens of fascinating characters along the way. He got on the nerves of many, but always strived to serve society, becoming the idealistic poster boy for the journalism industry.

Tintin in Africa.

Tintin was a journalist to envy. Not only did he travel the world on a daily basis – God knows how he paid for the air fares – but the inquisitive ranga was a one-man watchdog. He kept everybody accountable, bringing evildoers to justice while offering redemption to victims. That’s not to mention the odd perk or two; a trip to the moon here, a treasure chest there.

The curious thing is that Tintin rarely did any practical journalistic work, at least not in the public eye. He seldom picked up a pen, let alone a typewriter or a microphone. Sure, he did feel the odd bit of stress, but his deadlines never had anything to do with impatient editors. Rather his moments of panic had more to do with falling cargo, fierce animals, or wild bullets.

The 2011 film adaption delivers much the same story. Director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson evidently aren’t interested in offering audiences a tale about Tintin’s newspaper office realities, ala Spiderman. Instead they give us the Tintin of old. There are no ten minute sequences depicting Tintin’s struggles with writer’s block. In its place are fast-paced chase scenes involving exploding dams, avalanching hotels and the occassional piece of slapstick comedy from the ever-reliable Snowy.

As such, all the budding journalists out there should prepare to be disappointed. For everyone else, though, The Adventures of Tintin is an absolute delight and should not be missed.

The film begins with an intriguing title sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in Oceans 11 or Catch Me If You Can. Constant references are made to the original comics and there’s even a momentary shout-out to the 1990’s television series, with a snap of Tintin and dog Snowy running in line with a moving spotlight. Unfortunately the credits don’t give a second life to the epic theme tune from that same series (see below video), but that’s a petty complaint about an otherwise strong opening.

Fans are treated to more easter eggs as the film progresses. When a street artist (Herge?) paints a cartoon caricature of the human Tintin in the first “live-action” scene, though, one begins to fear that the references could be tacky and forced. Thankfully Spielberg and Jackson disguise their Tintin obsession with subtlety hereafter. Tintin diehards continue to be treated to their fair share of in-jokes, but few are attention-grabbing enough to distract others from the fast-moving, and at times intricate, storyline.

The Secret of the Unicorn in its original form

The Adventures of Tintin follows one of Herge’s most well-known stories, The Secret of the Unicorn. Long story cut short, Tintin becomes the unlikely owner of a mysterious yet extremely valuable model ship. Inside the ship is a secret clue which – when pieced together with two other clues – provides directions to a glorious prize. Without giving too much away, the film follows Tintin, Snowy and new friend Captain Haddock as they set out to find the two remaining clues. Of course, the trio aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the prize and this is where it all gets interesting.

Given that the television series equivalent lasted just half an hour, the film version evidently needed some padding. Thankfully, Herge’s catalogue is filled with exciting bits and pieces, offering the film’s writers an invaluable source for subplots and red herrings. As such, the 107-minute duration passes almost seamlessly, even for a viewer well-versed in all matters Tintin. Of course there is likely to be the odd critic, offended by the mixing and matching of Tintin’s various exploits. Yet given that only three Tintin films are scheduled for production it’s clear that you can’t please everybody.

Like so many other newish films – think Inception or Avatar – this film is as much about the storyline as it is about the aesthetics. In terms of technology, Tintin is about as advanced as it gets, utilising performance capture 3D animation. Similar to The Polar Express, Tintin was filmed with real actors and cameras, only to be re-modelled into an animated work.

Upon first hearing news of this production process months ago, I was disappointed. What’s the point of filming it live if it’s being re-worked on a computer?, I whinged. Moreover, if they want to make it animated why do they need actors?

Picture perfect graphics. Like a computer game.

Within minutes of entering the cinema, however, my cynicism had been wiped. I found the use of performance capture technology to be nothing short of excellent, with each pore, wrinkle and hair looking as sharp as a tack. Most importantly, the cartoon-live hybrid ensured that every character resembled its cartoon counterpart to a tee. Unlike other comic strip remakes, there was no room here for ambiguities. Tintin was Tintin, Aristides Silk was Aristides Silk, and Thompson and Thompson were Thompson and Thompson.

Given the demands of the script, the decision to use such technologies must have been an easy one for Spielberg and Jackson. As the age old rule states, filmmakers should never work with children or animals. The reason for this is clear in Tintin; no amount of training could have prepared any dog for the role of Snowy. For those unfamiliar with the Tintin story, Snowy is more than just a dog. He’s a savvy sidekick, a quick thinking hero, a man’s best friend. Surely only animation – or puppets – would have been able to do the vital companion any justice.

One of the things my Dad hates about animation is the potential for “anything” to happen. In my eyes, however, this was yet another strength of the technology. So often in films do we see action films that seem written by five-year olds. The baddie chases the goodie in a high speed blur. By the end of the sequence our eyes are in pain and our orientation of the storyline has been accentuated only by a giant question mark.

Herge’s likeable ensemble.

Tintin’s chase scenes, on the other hand, are a joy to watch. While occasionally too violent for an underage audience, the action is consistently creative, humorous and unexpected. Unlike other children’s films, slapstick humour is reduced to a minimum with the best gags carbon copied from the master himself, Herge.

One could argue that the film is lacking in humour and relies too much on action, but such criticism could be negated by the overwhelming sense of nostalgia and familiarity. While Spielberg and Jackson no doubt add their own touches to the screenplay, this film belonged to the late Herge and to his legions of fans. The lack of laugh-out-loud gags is barely noticeable for an avid fan, who is likely to be too obsorbed in the beauty of everything else to bother caring.

The Adventures of Tintin: In Cinemas Now. (excuse blatant plug)

The question remains as to whether Tintin is a good film by any standard, or whether it is only entertaining for fans of the comic book/television series. As somebody who belongs to the latter category I carry a unabashed bias, however I do believe the visual spectacle and Herge’s ever-impressive characters are enough to please the best of film buffs.

One thing I can say with more certainty is that Tintin is likely to appeal to people of all ages. Tintin subconsciously gave me inspiration in the ‘90s just as he undoubtedly did the same for those sixty years senior to me. Today, his appeal is still going strong, evident by the amount of families in attendance during my film session. It’s no surprise, too; aside from the racist joke or two, the books have all the ingredients desired by today’s readers.

For those who haven’t yet raced their eyes through Herge’s comics, or sang along to the television theme, perhaps this is the induction they need. Perhaps a new following of Tintin is waiting just around the corner, with each individual just 107 minutes shy of discovering a new source of inspiration.