The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) - A review

In 1983, when I was much younger, I watched an “interview”, broadcast on Janet Street-Porter’s “yoof TV” show Network7. Boy-reporter Tintin (we, the viewing public, were assured) was orbiting the Earth in Professor Calculus’s rocket, to bring amazing news to the world. Duly excited, I watched a 2D, somehow-electronically-but-rather-simply-animated Tintin inform the interviewer (and us) that none other than Steven Spielberg was in the process of bringing his globetrotting adventures to the screen!

Wow! If he could do for Tintin what he’d done with Indiana Jones–! I sat back, and waited…

…and waited…

…will it ever happen?…

…and waited…

…Great snakes! – A chap could start to lose hope…!

…and then…!

It’s 28-years later, and I am sitting in the viewing-theatre at BAFTA (BAFTA! The glittering heart of British cinema!), courtesy of the good folks at MediCinema, watching Thompson and Thomson introduce Steven Spielberg’s glorious new movie –

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn!

– and it proved well worth the wait!

I went to the event with Chris Owens, our very own Harrock n Roll, and, after a slight detour – BAFTA has a very discreet entrance, so we initially over-shot, and then were slightly diverted by the though that it might in fact be headquartered in a neighbouring Italian restaurant – we made our way up to reception, where our names were checked off on the guest list, before being shown through to the swish foyer bar.

We waited with a convivial group of the other attendees, while the BAFTA members-only dinner to finish.

In short order, the glamorous and great of the Academy were ready, and we were escorted up yet more steps to The Princess Anne Theatre, the building’s private cinema, where we were treated to complimentary pop-corn, and the sort of expensive fancy 3D glasses, which definitely said we weren’t in the local multiplex (they also had the sort of expensive, fancy inbuilt security technology to prevent them making their way out of the theatre and in to the multiplex, if the sticker was to be believed)!

Very soon we were all assembled, and the event proper began, as we put our hands together, and welcomed special guests for the evening, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the very human counterparts of the movie’s inept ’tecs, Inspectors Thompson and Thomson!

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Nick Frost (left) and Simon Pegg.

Photograph © Simon Doyle /

Such is the miracle of digital manipulation and computer technology which has gone into this film, that it is hard to imagine two more disparate figures ever being chosen to play two men so similar that they are often mistaken for twins.

Nick was quick to point out that they would look better when we put out special glasses on (a trick nobody fell for); he also suggested that, for a man of his shall we say fuller figure, the spandex, tight-fitting body suit worn for the performance-capture process was not the ideal costume to go to work in!

Nick Frost

Nick Frost

Photograph © Simon Doyle /

Simon then paid tribute to the work of the charity, which provides services for patients in hospitals to get to see cinema films during their stay, often in purpose built cinemas, and thanked the members of BAFTA who had bid so generously in the evening’s fund-raising activities.

With that, they were gone, presumably hot on the trail of another case, and the film began.

And what a beginning! Like an iPod advert directed by Saul Bass, the audience is treated to a stylized credit sequence played out in silhouette, which visually references all the books. It certainly builds the sense of anticipation for the film to come…

This is an extraordinary film – fast, fun and full of adventure!

Much has been made of the fact that the script is an amalgam of incidents from three of Hergé’s books. The main thrust of the tale is the search for the solution to a riddle, a puzzle set in train when Tintin buys a model ship: this is of course taken from the book The Secret of The Unicorn.

Added to this, in a completely novel departure, is the story of how Tintin and reprobate old soak Captain Haddock meet, which Hergé had placed in an earlier volume, The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Dropping the smuggling which served as the motivation for the action in that book, it replaces it instead with the quest for the third model ship, which is only ever mentioned and not seen in the Unicorn book.

This part of the quest has the advantage that, because there is no template for it in the original material, it allows Spielberg, his cast and the rest of his creative team free reign to create a sequence of events which take full advantage of the freedoms which working in this new medium of motion-capture performances and traditional (if one can use that term for such a recent innovation) computer animation of CGI figures, pushing it to a level all of its own.

Finally, in a coda derived from Red Rackham’s Treasure, the whole quest is brought to a resolution, which while satisfying in its way, whets the appetite for a sequel, the foundations for which are laid in the film’s closing moments.

The very notion of doing this combining of books, putting them into a new form for the film – when first announced – led to a lot of head scratching, and at least some cries of protest. How dare he do it!?

Let me say, the transplantation not only works, it borders on genius!

Rather than being a mere bolting together of sections from the divers books, it skilfully weaves together what were previously two unconnected stories and makes one satisfying whole out of them.

Perhaps the most joyous result from this splicing of plot-strands is the melding of the Captain’s recounting of the story of his ancestor Sir Francis – a sequence found in Unicorn – with the hallucinatory experiences he had while crossing the desert in Crab With the Golden Claws.

It leads to the poetically beautiful, and technically amazing, sight of the sailing ships of old rising out of the desert, and sailing the rolling dunes that then morph into the breaking waves of the sea.

It has to be said that the focus of these hallucinations, Captain Haddock, becomes the heart of the picture, with his downfall and redemption a major underpinning of the film. It is literally his journey (spiritual and geographical!), taking him from a man who has lost everything, to regaining his inheritance, and forming a lasting friendship with Tintin.

While it is possible to find these themes in Hergé, it’s obvious that it’s when they are filtered through Spielberg’s unique sensibility that they really shine, the ultimate vindication that Hergé was right when he declared Spielberg to be the man to bring his “paper family” to life.

No doubt the performances Spielberg gets from Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig and company go a long way to making the film as good as it is. Before its release much was made of whether this film could bridge the “uncanny valley” – the supposed gap between a photo-realistic CGI figure, and actually having it accepted as real by an audience. Rest assured, it succeeds more than could ever have been dreamed of.

Within minutes it’s not so much a case of worrying if the characters are real enough – it’s remembering that they aren’t!

This is a computer-generated Tintin of which I couldn’t have even dreamed when I saw the 2D, limited-animation version opening and closing his mouth and blinking on Network 7! This is why it took 28 years!

I confess my major concern in the project came when I read that the intention was to bring us Hergé’s people directly off the page, complete with skin with hair and pores. Early publicity shots didn’t really help – the figures looked strange and stilted; the trailers weren’t much better.

However, in motion, on screen, as we watched, such concerns fell by the wayside! Once the figures move, they live; and whilst not being exactly how I see them in my mind’s eye, they offer a consistent interpretation of the drawings, so that you very quickly accept this world of caricatures.

Some of the translations to the screen are more successful than others – the Thom(p)sons perhaps a mite too portly and inhuman, some of the audience at the desert concert distractingly like people in masks – but on the whole it is amazingly well done.

That’s only part of it! Not only does Mr. Spielberg provide characters that breathe life into the figures from the books, he sets them in a wholly believable, entirely realized virtual world.

It would be entirely possible to watch nothing but the background and environments: marvelling at the crackled glaze and paint-flakes on the prow of the model ship; watching dust motes dance in the beam of Tintin’s torch as he prowls a darkened room, or inspecting every grease-stained pipe in the roof of the corridors of Haddock’s ship, the Karaboudjan!

I imagine a great deal of time will be spent with the DVD, pausing to read the titles of the books on Tintin’s shelves, or the press-cuttings on his walls, because the level of detail is that good!

Credit should also be given to the animators: although the performances of the actors were recorded as the basis of character movement, much was left for those with traditional animating skills. Their most notable achievement is the ever-resourceful Snowy, who, while created entirely on the usual principles of computer-animation, may have more life and zest about him than even the central humans do. He steals virtually every scene he is in, and rightly so!

If I have a criticism (other than it looks like it might be quite a while before we get the sequel) it’s that perhaps the film never quite manages to capture the sort of verbal humour to be found in the books.

The British reading public were extremely lucky to have had the duties of translation fall to the team of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and the late Michael Turner, a pair who shared a very close working relationship with Hergé, which resulted in an authentic and author-approved version of Hergé’s particular world-view.

There’s a certain style and cadence to the dialogue in the book, and it seems lacking in that used for the movie.

Word play, wit and a precise use of language are a hallmark of the books – for example in the inspired choice of vocabulary chosen for Haddock’s curses, or in the punning creation of fictional character and place names. But this script barely manages to establish even “Blistering barnacles!” and “Thundering typhoons!” as catch-phrases, let alone introduce rich, tongue-rolling cries such as “Bashi-bazouks!”, “Dizzards!”, and “Ectoplasm!”, which pepper the Captains speech in the original.

Whilst the film does also have verbal jokes, they just don’t fly with the same lightness that one finds in the books, and sometimes unfortunately thud to the floor.

The film is on far stronger ground when it evokes Hergé’s love of slapstick and physical comedy. The scene of the Detectives chasing the pickpocket is move for move a loving recreation of the same sequence in the original, down to the look of the very lamp-post that intervenes at just the wrong moment. Hergé, I am sure, would be proud!

The same sensibility is brought to bear on scenes which have been created anew for the film; I am sure Hergé would also have appreciated the slumbering crew sliding up and down their bunks as the boat rocks, or the manner in which Haddock makes a mess of firing a recently stolen rocket-launcher.

So confident is his handling of the cartoon action, that Spielberg even goes so far as throwing in a couple of nice little self-referential nods to Jaws and Raiders, giving the always resourceful Snowy the chance to play at Indiana Jones on a speeding truck.

My one other disappointment – and this may be entirely a matter of my own taste – was the John Williams score.

I have previously loved the film work of this doyen of the sound-track, and think his music for films in the Superman and Star Wars franchises to be superb; I was really looking forward to hearing his take on the music which would underpin our favourite Belgian boy-reporter.

Sadly, I was not impressed. Somehow the cues used throughout the film seemed to be little more than a pastiche of previous scores he had written for other movies, and whilst the title animations were inspired, the choppy, jazz-inspired music which played under it was jarring and un-memorable.

I was able to whistle the theme from Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece nearly forty years after having seen it once; I couldn’t do that with the new tune after walking out of the theatre, and that’s a pity.

These minor nit-picks aside, the ending came all too soon; as I mentioned, there is a coda to this movie, which provides an ending to the proceedings should for any reason this prove to be both first and last in the line.

However, it does lay the ground-work for a sequel, which will no doubt incorporate the rest of Red Rackham’s Treasure, introduce the irascible inventor Professor Cuthbert Calculus, his iconic shark submarine, and if the hints in the script suggest, point us towards South American gold, the Andes, and, eventually, The Prisoners of the Sun!

I’d happily recommend this film to anyone, Tintinophile or otherwise.

It’s a remarkable achievement – Steven Spielberg on top form, bringing the spirit of Tintin to a wider audience in a manner which should exclude nobody. There is enough fidelity to satisfy most fans, and in-jokes and references by the score, but not in such a way that anyone coming fresh to Tintin will feel left out.

Chris and I certainly had a great evening, and must once again thank MediCinema for the invitation, and the opportunity to see the film in such lavish surroundings.

Roll on the second movie. If it is anywhere near as good as this current one, it will almost be worth another 28-year wait – but I hope it’s sooner!

An edited version of this article appears on the MediCinema website.


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