Steven Spielberg was apparently turned on to the Belgian comicstrip hero Tintin while making his first Indiana Jones films, so it seems entirely fitting that his motion-capture animation “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” should rep such a rollicking return to action-adventure form, especially after the disappointment of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Clearly rejuvenated by his collaboration with producer Peter Jackson, and blessed with a smart script and the best craftsmanship money can buy, Spielberg has fashioned a whiz-bang thrill ride that’s largely faithful to the wholesome spirit of his source but still appealing to younger, Tintin-challenged auds. Pic should do thundering typhoon biz globally, but will whirl especially fast in Europe.
Paramount release is skedded to bow Oct. 22 in Euroland and then roll out worldwide, hitting North America just in time for Christmas. It’s a canny distribution strategy that will maximize exposure and B.O. potential in the territories that know Belgian artist Herge’s source material best, thereby building up a solid rep before the pic reaches the U.S., where Tintin is still effectively a cult figure, known mostly among comicbook fans and Europhile cognoscenti.
Early buzz on fan sites indicated that expectations weren’t high for Spielberg’s take on the material, given the arguably overused devices of 3D and motion-capture. Working hand-in-hand with Jackson, however, the director and his team have deployed both technologies with subtle finesse throughout, exploiting 3D’s potential just enough to make the action scenes that much more effective without overdoing it; likewise, the motion-capture performances have been achieved with such exactitude they look effortless, to the point where the characters, with their exaggerated features, almost resemble flesh-and-blood thesps wearing prosthetic makeup.
Indeed, in the early going auds might wonder why the filmmakers bothered with motion-capture at all. But the choice starts to make sense once Snowy, Tintin’s faithful white terrier, performs antics not even the best-trained pooch could perform and the sets, stunts and action sequences become ever more lavish.
Extreme Tintin purists might quibble that the screenplay, by all-Brit team Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who”), Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”), doesn’t stick to the letter of Herge’s original strips. But others will appreciate how skillfully it shuffles and restacks elements from three of the adventures: slices from “The Crab With the Golden Claws” (published in 1943), the lion’s share from “The Secret of the Unicorn” and a wee bit from “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (both published in 1945). The remainder of the latter book will presumably bedrock the inevitable sequel.
Accompanied by his mutt mate Snowy, boy reporter Tintin (voiced by and based on the movements of Jamie Bell) buys a scale model of an old ship called the Unicorn at an outdoor market in an unnamed city with both French and English writing on its storefronts — a sly bit of fudging that tips its hat to the fact that the books were retranslated for every country they were published in. Two other men immediately try to repurchase the model off him, first sinister gent Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and then an American named Barnaby (Joe Starr).
Tintin refuses, and once he realizes the ship contains a vital clue about the location of missing treasure, the ever-inquisitive lad begins his adventure in earnest. Eventually he’s kidnapped and spirited off to the Karaboudjan, a steamer nominally under the command of one Capt. Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose permanent state of inebriation has left him powerless against the machinations of Sakharine.
Haddock, it transpires, is the last remaining descendant of Sir Francis Haddock (also Serkis in flashbacks) a 17th-century naval commander who lost his ship, the Unicorn, in a battle with pirates led by Red Rackham (Craig). Tintin helps Haddock escape, and after a detour in the Sahara and a bravura chase through the fictional city of Bagghar, Morocco (all done in one shot), they make their way back to their point of origin. Along the way, they’re aided and abetted by two bumbling, identical Interpol officers named Thomson and Thompson (Wright regulars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, respectively), who aren’t that critical to the plot but are helpful in terms of comic relief.
Aside from a crack about a shepherd said to have shown too much enthusiasm for animal husbandry, the humor throughout is resolutely PG-friendly, lacking in the knowing irony and snarky, anachronistic wisecracks that have become such predictable fixtures of other recent blockbusters and reboots. Spielberg largely honors the innocent, gung-ho tone of the original stories, with their air of boyish derring-do (femme characters barely feature at all here), sensibly shunning the racist and anti-Semitic elements that just won’t wash with contempo auds. Result is retro without being stodgy or antiquated; Tintin himself, for instance, has a more mischievous glint in his eye than the wide-eyed naif of the strips, which makes him feel more modern, if curiously unplaceable in terms of age.
The worst that could be said of “The Secret of the Unicorn” is that the action is so relentless, it nearly comes to feel like a videogame as it leaps from one challenge to the next. Younger auds will embrace it more than older ones, although even teens may feel it lacks the kitsch majesty that made “Avatar” such a hit.
Toon geeks are likely to be among “Tintin’s” biggest fans, so consistently stylish and richly detailed is its design work. With immense sensitivity, the animators have translated Herge’s spare, elegant drawings into a multidimensional world that seems realistic (especially in its use of chiaroscuro lighting, which plays wonderfully with sunlight and shadows throughout) yet still charmingly stylized and cartoony. Perhaps the film’s sweetest joke comes at the very beginning, when a street artist, modeled on the real Herge, does a quick-sketch portrait of Tintin that looks exactly like one of the original strips.