Cinema Review: The Adventures Of Tintin

Mark Butler reviews the much-hyped big-screen debut of the classic comic-book hero, starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig.

On paper, it could hardly be more exciting. Directed by Hollywood great Steven Spielberg and produced by Lord Of The Rings mastermind Peter Jackson, with the latest in performance-capture technology on show and the much-loved, exhilirating stories of Herge forming the inspiration for the characters and plot, this first cinematic-outing for quiffed, Belgian boy-detective Tintin has got everything going for it.

Indeed, it’s been a long-time in the making and something of a labour-of-love for Spielberg, who has been planning on bringing the comic-book character to the big-screen for almost thirty years. But the question is, now that it’s finally here, does The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn actually justify all the hype?

As first impressions go, it’s hard not to be impressed. We join Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his faithful dog Snowy at a lively market, where the sumptuous computer graphics make a profound visual impact from the off. Performance-capture animation has come a long way since the shaky days of the Polar Express, and it’s fair to say that even an otherwise unspectacular scene has instant ‘wow factor’ with regards to its look and execution.

As far as story goes, there’s little in the way of exposition besides a character emphasising Tintin’s local fame and a few quickly-flashed newspaper clippings doing the rest, but soon the jigsaw pieces of an action-caper plot begin to fall into place.

Our plucky, inquisitive hero purchases a seemingly innocuous model ship, and is swiftly impressed of its apparent importance when first a nervy American and then the shady, plummy-voiced Saccharin (Daniel Craig) offer substantial sums to take it off his hands. Soon it becomes apparent that the villain of the piece is willing to resort to intimidation and violence to secure its secrets, and the stage is set for a rollicking adventure that takes in the high-seas and exotic lands – not to mention bumbling sea-faring drunk and crucial player Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis).

The scriptwriters are an intriguing choice, and a rather exciting trio. Super-geek Edgar Wright has made his mark with Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim; Steven Moffat has a tremendous pedigree in British TV drama; and Joe Cornish’s debut film Attack The Block was a masterclass in bold, innovative genre entertainment. All have a great and deserved reputation for comedy, and this talent is demonstrated with a number of laugh-out-loud gags and one-liners. Sadly, perhaps in an effort to cater for child viewers, and also no doubt channeling the comics for inspiration, there are also tiresome lapses into slapstick that simply do not work. In particular, the sub-plot involving the Thompson twins (voiced by long-time Wright collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) is merely an excuse for the duo to flounder about in painfully unfunny fashion, which rather jars with the otherwise refreshingly dangerous, daring tone of the action – which recalls a time when Hollywood was unafraid to put frightening, brutal yet astutely-judged suspense scenarios into family films.

This is no carefree exercise in childish exuberance. A man is machine-gunned to death on a doorstep; the hired thugs are genuinely brutish and nasty, despite their predictable incompetence. Even Tintin himself is not above punching his way out of a tight corner.

The first half of the film is largely faithful to the spirit of the original stories, but around the half-way mark another very familiar influence begins to make itself felt. In short, it’s obvious that Spielberg has been relishing the chance to revisit the classic Indiana Jones capers of old – with composer John Williams just as eager to go on an Indy-infused trip down memory lane (I defy you not to experience a ping of nostalgia when the Arabian-inspired motif kicks in at various points).

There are furious fistfights; there’s a scene where Tintin and co are menaced by a machine-gunning biplane; and there’s even a palpably exciting and fast-paced chase sequence in which our heroes race along in a motorcycle and sidecar (with Haddock wielding a bazooka, no less). As you might expect with Spielberg, these action sequences are directed with real flair and wonderfully put-together, with the most thrilling undoubtedly a flashback to a swashbuckling battle between a group of marauding pirates and their quarry. It’s by far and away the highlight of the film.

There are also some inspired directorial touches unusual for a film of this type. The contours of a raised hand segway into the dunes of a barren desert in a memorable scene-transition; the camera closes in on the villain’s bespectacled-eyes in a piece of magnificent,  evocative photography. It’s at these moments we see Spielberg the genius at work, but they are notable for their rarity.

Indeed, despite its punchy shoot-outs and sporadic sense of excitement, there are plenty of moments when Tintin feels rather tiresome and uninspired, where scenes come and go as forgettable, uninteresting filler. One particular bugbear is the frequency with which our know-it-all titlular frontman is forced to explain elements of the plot or various Mcguffins to other characters – and by extension to us. It’s a disappointingly mundane and lazy way of filling in the gaps and moving the action along.

It’s also fair to say that many of the characters – including Tintin himself – feel pretty bland and underdeveloped. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but we need to at least care about the people we’re following, and even Haddock, who is given the most attention with his alcoholic woes and feelings of despair, doesn’t feel partcularly interesting. The one point where he delivers what is supposed to be an inspiring speech to his young charge is actually just cheesy and meaningless – and turns out to be merely a device to trigger an important ‘lightbulb moment’ in Tintin.

The most glaring flaw is perhaps the way the movie ends or, to put it more accurately, doesn’t end. A weird fight sequence where Saccharin and Haddock go toe-to-toe in cranes (yep, you read that correctly) and then have a short-lived swordfight feels like a prelude to a bigger showdown later on, but the film surprises by drawing to a close in what feels like pretty rushed and unsatisfying fashion, while paving the way for an inevitable sequel.

It doesn’t outstay its welcome by any means, and while it lasts it’s a hundred minutes or so of largely diverting entertainment, punctuated by the odd moment of genuine brilliance. But it’s no masterpiece, and for all of its technical mastery and visual splendour, the experience is ultimately somewhat hollow.

At times Tintin gives us glimpses of Spielberg at his best, and there are enough gripping action sequences and amusing outbursts to hold your attention, yet given the major array of talent on show you can’t help but feel that this is a slightly disappointing experience. It’s a perfectly decent adventure romp – but don’t expect to be blown-away by it.

FMV Rating: ***

The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn is out now at UK cinemas, and will be released in the US on December 21st.

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