As most of you know, I’m a pretty big fan of Steven Spielberg’s directorial ability. I also grew up loving Hergé’s masterful Tintin books, and have a lot of respect for Peter Jackson, so I approached the Secret of the Unicorn with great anticipation. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s project choices and story-telling motivations have declined in the last few years, Jackson’s filmography is more miss than hit, and Hollywood’s record of adapting older stories for newer audiences is pretty terrible, so I also approached the film with considerable trepidation.
Fortunately, I can now report that Tintin was brought to the screen without any of Crystal Skull’s franchise-breaking silliness or King Kong’s over-sentimentalized faux historicalism, adapting Hergé’s stories straight up and without too much theatrical mugging. Also, much of the franchise’s character survived intact.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, Hergé was a Belgian comic book author who, from the 1920s to the 1970s, wrote and illustrated 23 books about a young journalist’s adventures around the globe. Tintin and his dog Snowy faced down an increasingly realistic series of villains as they investigated lost treasure, counterfeiting rings, museum robberies, and political intrigue. Tintin’s friends, the tough sea-faring Captain Haddock, the brilliant but deaf Professor Calculus, and the often misguided Thompson and Thomson from Scotland Yard, usually ended up in the middle of gang wars, military invasions, lost tribes, scientific expeditions, and more.
Incredibly popular throughout Europe, the Tintin adventures aren’t known as well here in America. Part of that reason may be the content of the books. Tintin is an incredibly clean-cut young hero, but even though the above paragraph reads like light, fluffy Saturday morning cartoon fare, his adventures deal in a pretty no-nonsense way with murder, kidnapping, drug smuggling, and human trafficking, usually against a background of political revolution, totalitarian tyranny, or betrayal. Furthermore, modern critics often complain about Captain Haddock’s near-constant drinking, the inevitable gunplay, the many fatalities, complex moral dilemmas, and situations uncomfortably similar to world events of the time.
Studios tend to shy away from these issues in a children’s movie. A regular film adaptation of these books for 21st-century American audiences would probably remove the moral spine of Hergé’s work to make it “safe” for kids, or transform Tintin into a conflicted adult hero in a deeply depraved world.
Spielberg and Jackson wisely picked a few of Tintin’s blander books for this introductory movie, enabling them to preserve most of the aspects of the original vision. The film is a nice blend of exotic locations grounded in realistic dirt and smell, epic adventures tempered with real blood and exhaustion, and heroic idealism that is unfettered by the sarcasm, sefl-doubt, or existential darkness of most Hollywood protagonists.
Spielberg managed this balance well in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the ability to portray realistic situations in a fantastic setting, danger without wallowing in gloom, or fearless heroism without stooping to superhuman abilities (especially to a younger audience), is Hergé’s signature style. The universe that Tintin occupies is very much like our own, with actual political and moral situations simplified for young readers, but neither ignored or exaggerated into pure fantasy.
For example, when Tintin’s adventures take him to the Middle East, he visits fictional Islamic cities, but nevertheless gets a pretty clear-eyed look at backwards, conflicted Muslim culture. Glittering mosques sit right next to decaying slums full of beggars. European arms dealers sell surplus weapons to traditionalist, tent-dwelling sheiks. The reality of 1940’s and 50’s geopolitics is communicated without being exploitative or white-washed, without dwelling on the degrading filth of the beggars or overlooking the manipulations of imperialist colonialism.
This is even more true in the later books. Tintin’s first comic strips in the 20’s tend to be much less sophisticated, when the young Hergé sent his new Boy Scout character around the world for the amusement of Belgian school children. After his blunt criticisms of the newly-formed Soviet Union, contemporary writers labeled him a fascist, and modern readers who have seen Tintin’s Congo adventure have branded him a racist.
The first allegation is laughable, but the second is not as funny. Hergé’s first portrayal of African culture and Africans themselves is extremely condescending, and exacerbated by his early, primitive drawing style and a plotless reliance on punchlines. He matured quickly, however, growing as a social commentator, an artist, and a storyteller.
His stories developed better structure, inciting incidents, multiple plot lines, and became more cinematic in their scope. The humor became more subtle, and the melodrama became real drama. His setups and payoffs are brilliant, like a pickpocket who appears to exist only to offer comic opportunities for bumbling detectives but unwittingly steals important clues from the story’s main villain, thus tying all the plots together and providing new twists and setups.
This ability to effortlessly condense and expand plotlines is also one of Spielberg’s greatest strengths. He likes to create miniature, self-contained story moments as a break from the main plot, but these almost-asides usually strengthen, rather than distract from, the main plot flow and his characters. He can easily switch characters from heroic to comedic and back without weakening them, and as such was the ideal director to bring Tintin to the screen.
Spielberg is also the best visual director for this job, and makes the most of his first animated film. With a virtual camera at his disposal, he uses framing and motion cautiously during action and boldly during dialogue, often mimicking Hergé’s setups from the books, but usually expanding shots and scenes to better fit the medium of cinema. Benjamin Botkin jokes that this film is his apology for the Crystal Skull.
The trademark Spielberg lighting elements are there, as are the use of reflections and atmospheric elements, sometimes exaggerated in ways only possible in animation. Characters are often seen reflected or distorted in bottles, bubbles, puddles, swords, or other objects that would be impossible to properly choreograph with live action props. It’s very fun, and fits the story well, even if it could be excessive for other films.
As much as I love the simple, strong claire ligné style of Hergé’s drawings, it’s hard to imagine them working in motion, and a live-action Tintin film, like the one Spielberg was planning in the early 80s, would have had other significant challenges.
A lot of credit needs to go to the art directors at Weta Digital. While other mocap films like Polar Express and Mars Needs Moms fall into the “Uncanny Valley” between cartoons and live action, where stilted animation and dead eyes repulse rather than attract audiences, Tintin and his friends work… for the most part. Snowy and Thompson and Thomson fare the worst in trying to combine realism and caricature with appeal, but they aren’t too distracting.
The reveal of each character is handled well, and played to the weaknesses of the technology. Tintin himself is introduced in silhouette during a 2D animated title sequence at the beginning of the film, but then seen only from behind as other 3D characters acclimate the audience to the look of the film. Tintin then has his caricature sketched by a digital cameo of Hergé himself as dozens of extras pass by. Only after we’ve seen many other people does the camera reveal our hero’s iconic features in 3D.
Likewise, Thompson and Thomson first “appear” while hiding behind newspapers, and Captain Haddock’s head is hugely distorted through a whiskey bottle for a line or two of dialog before his face emerges. It is very clever to introduce audiences to the new voices and faces of their favorite characters gradually, in stages.
Speaking of which, the actors did an excellent job, and were cast well. Captain Haddock does have an inexplicably Scottish accent for the heir to an upper-crust English title (especially since his servant-of-the-crown ancestor has the same exaggerated brogue), but otherwise Andy Serkis did excellent work.
For cinematic purposes, Tintin’s main flaw is that he has no flaw. He cannot grow, and thus he cannot have a character arc. Fortunately, Captain Haddock does have a character arc, at least in the first couple of books. After he sobers up he becomes the same gruff and powerful seadog for the remainder of the series, continuing to drink but being only occasionally drunk. In many ways, The Secret of the Unicorn is his movie.
The film begins when Tintin, after having his caricature drawn, buys a model ship from an antique dealer. It is a model of the HMS Unicorn, commanded by Sir Francis Haddock in the 17th century. Complications ensue when this ship model turns out to be highly sought by various members of the criminal underworld in hopes that it contains some clue to the lost treasure of the Unicorn.
Long story short, it does, and after many thrilling action sequences involving guns, cars and dockyards, Tintin finds himself a prisoner in Act II, shanghaied aboard a tramp steamer on its way to north Africa, and reluctantly teamed up with Captain Haddock, the permanently inebriated descendant of Sir Francis.
Half a dozen narrow boat and plane escapes later, Tintin and the Captain beat the steamer to the African Coast, are rescued by the French Foreign Legion, and attend an musical event hosted by a prominent Arab leader, and things continue logically from there in another serious of big screen conflicts and adventures until the climactic finish.
Throughout all this, Tintin is chasing down the answer to the mystery, the villain wants the treasure, and while various clues pop up here and there, the real key to the secret of the Unicorn is in the memory of the drunken, useless Captain Haddock. In order for him to assist Tintin and thwart his nemesis, he must sober up.
As in the book that their meeting is based on, Tintin is the example that the Captain needs, and he begins to resist the temptation to drink. While temperance groups have criticized the Tintin books because of their regular depiction of alcohol consumption, Hergé handles alcohol abuse properly. Captain Haddock is Tintin’s closest friend and greatest ally – unless he’s been drinking. I can’t think any lesson against drunkenness as vivid as the Captain’s violently dualistic nature in the early books.
The film handles the Captain’s rejection of whiskey very well, especially when all the setups pay off in Act III, but the lessons on temptation and self control are a little weakened by all the humor that is squeezed out of the Captain’s ongoing struggle. Some of the jokes are too broad, making the Captain more of a buffoon than he should be, but between his hallucinations while detoxing in the Sahara desert and a short relapse involving some medical alcohol, he begins to remember his family legacy.
This was my favorite part of the film. Watching Sir Francis Haddock single-handedly sink a pirate ship and nearly defeat the entire pirate crew easily trumps everything seen in all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Even better is the way that the Spielberg laid out the naval battle, Captain Haddock’s very active retelling of the history, and the transitions between the two scenes.
It’s a masterfully directed sequence, but it also sets up the Captain’s character. Up until now he has been either a comic or tragic figure, at best a hindrance to Tintin and at worst a serious liability. But now we see what kind of men his ancestors were, and we can’t wait for him to man up, kick his whisky habit, and smash the villain for good.
In film, it can be dangerous to reveal a character’s potential before he himself realizes it, and it is also important that audience not have to sit through too many scenes waiting for the character to become cool or useful. In addition, Spielberg had to make sure that Captain Haddock’s final showdown with his nemesis was no less cataclysmic than his ancestor’s duel with the pirate chief. In this he succeeded.
Lessons for Filmmakers
While I don’t believe that Spielberg is at the top of his game anymore, Spielberg in a slump is still the best. There’s a lot to learn from this film, mostly in how the camera is moved and how it is placed. With total freedom to position the camera, to frame any way and show anything, each shot is Spielberg’s ideal setup. I can’t wait to further dissect this film shot by shot.
There are also some valuable lessons in what could have been done better. The lack of an arc for Tintin is basically made up for by the Captain’s arc, but he doesn’t show up until Act II, so more emotional connection to Tintin would have been really helpful. Adapting Tintin for the big screen is challenging, since his character is pretty flat, mainly representing the reader’s own perspective, and Snowy isn’t quite a strong enough foil to support him during Act I.
Tintin and Captain Haddock express few emotions during the course of this journey; curiosity, wonder, indignation when experiencing the machinations of the villains, and a tiny, brief moment of discouragement when the “all is lost” moment occurs at the end of Act II. More emotional reaction would have resulted in a little more emotional connection with the audience, and provided some welcome pauses in the whirlwind action of the main plot.
Ultimately though, many of the lessons from the film come from Hergé’s storytelling ability, and the universe that he places his stories in. During WWII Tintin’s enemies were generic, non-political badguys, since Belgium’s Nazi occupiers ran the newspapers, but prior to the occupation Hergé had used his comics to criticize Fascism and the Anschluss in King Ottokar’s Scepter, and The Blue Lotus even had Tintin witness the actual 1931 Mukden Incident that led to the Japanese invasion of China.
After the liberation of Europe, Tintin’s adventures returned to a much more recognizable world and actual events. Later stories show the fictional but clearly Soviet-esque nation of Borduria stealing military technology from other nations, racing western superpowers to the moon, and initiating South American revolutions and Arabian wars. As Tintin books were translated into other languages, children around the world had complex geopolitics explained to them in a consistent, mature, conservative way.
Twenty-seven years after the extremely embarrassing Tintin the Congo, Hergé’s Red Sea Sharks adventure involves a slave ship in the Mediterranean. While his drawings of the black slaves still tend to elicit criticism, these characters are treated with much more dignity, and Tintin and Captain Haddock respond to the slave traders with fury, the act of slavery with horror, and the slaves with great compassion.
The Secret of the Unicorn hasn’t been as successful a film in the US as it has internationally, but at least one sequel has already been greenlit, to be directed by Peter Jackson. Even if the future films and characters don’t grow in maturity like Hergé’s creations did, I hope they can maintain the sunny-but-serious tone.
And even if Jackson and Spielberg miss out on an opportunity to depict real historical situations using this franchise, Christian filmmakers can still learn from Hergé’s example. When he avoided a totally fantasy world and refused to shrink from real issues, he managed to tell stories that still ring true with all ages and audiences, and also teach valuable moral lessons about a multitude of issues from drunkenness to nuclear espionage.
These lessons work because the situations are realistic without being defiling, exciting without being gratuitous. Modern entertainment tends to equate moral realism with pessimism and darkness, and even when it does place a protagonist in a politically-correct magical superhero world, he tends to be crass and whiny. Tintin is one of the last heroes to seriously confront real-world sin and corruption while remaining optimistic and pure-hearted. From his first adventure to his last, he remains a boy scout.
Discerning filmmakers should carefully analyze how this is done, and build on what Hergé accomplished.