The Secret of the Unicorn is not the best Tintin book. It lacks the empathy of The Blue Lotus or Tintin in Tibet, or the political intrigue of many of the sharper stories. But it’s a sturdy swashbuckling adventure, an old-fashioned tale about pirates and buried treasure, so it’s not surprising that Steven Spielberg has been drawn to it.
Shortly before his death in 1983, Hergé, author of the 23 Tintin books, bequeathed his legacy to Steven Spielberg, believing he was the only filmmaker who could translate to screen his stories of a Belgian boy reporter with a funny name. Finally realizing the late author’s dream, Spielberg has invited Peter Jackson to serve as producer for this film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn , with the alleged understanding that he’ll direct the next one in the franchise. This makes the movie one of the more exciting collaborations in recent years, both on its own merits and for what it promises.
The Adventures of Tintin, which combines three of Hergé’s works from around the same time period — The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944) – is a respectable adaptation, which reincarnates the classic comics as a blockbuster. Tintin (Jamie Bell) is joined by most of his eccentric friends: the loyal but alcohol-dependent and fiery-tempered Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and bungling police detective twins Thomson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The doddery Professor Calculus is somehow missing, even though his first appearance in the books was Red Rackham’s Treasure; the filmmakers must be saving him for another day.
The Adventures of Tintin is an affectionate tribute to Hergé, and it’s obvious Spielberg is a true fan. The film features clever references to the books that fans will love, and the inventive animation sequence over the opening credits could almost work as a standalone short. The use of motion-capture technology is convincing, allowing as close a resemblance to the heroes of the book as any live-action film ever will, and more expansive than traditional animation.
The movie concocts a a world bursting with color, with a wealth of appreciable detail on small and large scales: a huge freighter putting out to sea at sunset looks as spectacular as a small metal canister falling to the floor behind a cabinet. There is only a slight dead-eyed look in the actors’ faces, when the camera lingers on them a second too long. Spielberg lends some of his own distinctive touches to the visual splendor: a plot development reflected in a bubble; point-of-view shots for Snowy, Tintin’s loyal dog, as he makes his way through a busy street; a dramatic reveal of a ship’s name.
But The Adventures of Tintin also misses the feel of the comics. Not content to stick with The Secret of the Unicorn’s storyline, which is essentially an old-fashioned yarn about retracing the past, hunting for long-buried treasure and reminiscing about your ancestors, screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish have deemed it necessary to intertwine past and present, and contrive a more modern-day villain. This is Ivanovich Sakharine, in the books merely a harmless collector, but played here by a snarling Daniel Craig as a direct descendant of Red Rackham, once the most feared pirate on the high seas. Rackham’s arch nemesis was Sir Francis Haddock, and Sakharine has apparently nursed a grudge against Captain Haddock down through the centuries, seeking vengeance against a current descendant. It’s a hammy plot element that is beneath its source material. And goodness knows why the film crams in extra characters from the books: the crooked merchant Omar Ben Salaad (Gad Elmaleh) and opera singer Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) are the most prominent examples. They serve no purpose here, and will likely leave those who haven’t read the books confused.
Moffat, Wright, and Cornish also have trouble nailing comic-book dialogue, Hergé’s combinations of wit, self-awareness, and parody. While including many of Tintin and Haddock’s favorite ripostes (“Great snakes!” or “Billions of blistering blue barnacles!”), the script is sometimes reduced to stilted exposition and outright hokum: “What secrets do you hold?” Tintin exclaims boyishly, in the opening minutes, to a model ship. Once he’s out on the water, stuck in a rowboat in the middle of nowhere with Haddock, Tintin asks, “Which way to North Africa?”, apparently to inform the rest of us where they’re headed.
Such minor absurdities fall by the wayside during the movie’s final act, when Spielberg seems to forget about Tintin altogether, and begins mapping out the next Indiana Jones movie. Spielberg’s fondness for over-the-top CGI (and for excessive action more generally) here leads to a reframing of Tintin as an action hero (which he is not, in the books). When he essentially destroys a city to chase a hawk carrying a message, the film goes too far. A sequence in which Captain Haddock belches alcohol fumes into a biplane engine is similarly ludicrous, and — most tediously — a duel between dockyard cranes is just noisy.
These late indulgences are a shame, as The Adventures of Tintin is otherwise a modestly successful introduction to the comic books. That said, there are many more Tintin adventures to adapt. I’d be interested to see what a filmmaker could do with The Black Island, King Ottokar’s Sceptre or The Red Sea Sharks. For the next installment, assuming it is coming, let’s hope Jackson will bring his respect and faithfulness to the source material that characterized his Lord of the Rings trilogy, not the flights of fancy that dominated his adaptation of The Lovely Bones. I’m not entirely confident.