The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (review)

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The Adventures of Tintin The Secret of the Unicorn

Raiders of a Past Flick

Steven Moffat (of Sherlock and Doctor Who). Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). Joe Cornish (of Attack the Block). Peter Jackson (of The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Steven Spielberg (of, you know, pretty much everything else cool ever). All these impressive names. All this talent. And what did they do?
They remade Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Not really, of course. Because Raiders of the Lost Ark was, comparatively speaking, quick and dirty and scrappy. Raiders of the Lost Ark had Harrison Ford smirking and snarking his way through it. Raiders of the Lost Ark had personality. Raiders of the Lost Ark had soul.

Tintin has motion-capture CGI animation, which removes all personality, all soul. The technology has advanced slightly since the dead-eyed horror of The Polar Express, but not by enough.

This may be the most important thing: A CGI-animated ersatz Raiders of the Lost Ark can never, ever have a moment like the one we got in Raiders, now one of the iconic movie moments of all time: Indy, faced with a scimitar-wielding baddie full of glee at the prospect of battling Our Hero, sighs wearily and whips out his pistol, killing the swordsman stone dead in an instant. This moment was improvised on the set because Harrison Ford was suffering from dysentery acquired on an exotic location shoot and was really eager to get out of performing a big action scene.

That sort of organicness is utterly missing from Tintin. There’s only so much organicness that can be faked via CGI that beautifully replicates grass or stone or skin or whatever. And it does not include moments of unexpected human humor. There are no happy accidents in a movie like this one. Even the unaffectedness is calculated.

This summer we had Super 8, in which Spielberg devotee J.J. Abrams aped Spielberg out of love. And it was sorta sweet, if not terribly exciting. I’m not sure we should be so generous now that the man is aping himself. It’s too close to masturbation, which should be a private thing, not something offered for the rest of us to watch.

Look: I have no horse in this race. I’ve heard, of course, of Tintin, the Belgian comic-book boy hero created by Hergé. But I’ve never read any of the comic books, that I can recall. I certainly have no love — or any other feeling — for Tintin, as many do. I voice my frustration here not out of any preconceptions I may have brought into the screening room with me. Except that I never would have expecting Steven Spielberg to steal from his own damn self. There are bits here that are lifted shot for shot from the Indiana Jones movies.

I mean, come on.

But, okay, fine: As kiddie cartoons go, Tintin isn’t awful. It’s fine for kids, as a sort of Raiders Lite (though I hope it doesn’t spoil them for the real Raiders when they’re a little older). It’s a teensy, weensy more daring in some aspects than you might expect from a children’s movie: characters smoke cigarettes here; Tintin uses a gun; the secondary hero, Captain Haddock, is a roaring drunk. But Tintin (the voice of Jamie Bell: The Eagle, Defiance) is, as the title might lead you to believe, on a quest to discover the secret of the Unicorn, an old sailing ship. He gets up to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing around 1930s Europe and the Middle East — seriously, it’s amazing he didn’t bump into Profession Henry Jones Jr. somewhere along the way — with his dog, Snowy (who basically steals the show with his lovely dogginess), and Haddock (the voice of Andy Serkis: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Brighton Rock), who is heir to the Unicorn’s secret. There’s a lot of faux swearing about barnacles, and a big long uncut chase sequence on that is, yeah, technically interesting, I guess.

But that’s not what I go to the movies for. I don’t want to see something that looks and feels like cut scenes from a video game. I want to see characters whom I care about, who are on adventures that mean something. Because it turns out that the secret of the Unicorn isn’t really that much of a big deal at all. Nothing is really at stake during Tintin’s adventure here. I’m not saying we need a religious Nazi apocalypse that may be brought about by the Fuhrer’s obsession with the occult, but there should be something that makes us feel like something is at risk, that there’s some sort of mortal danger for somebody.

I didn’t feel that at all. I felt like Spielberg was trying to recapture the past cinematic magic that he created instead of trying to create some new magic. As someone who was profoundly impacted by that magic in the past, this disappoints me hugely.

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