Saturday, 29 October 2011

Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn review

The best thing about Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was its opening credits. In them, familiar (or else soon to be) silhouettes conduct a shadow play, darting in and out between highly stylised, colour blocked scenery to a silent drama. In the space of a few short minutes, our mute Tintin discovers a murder victim or two, jostles with a thief, and then chases said criminal across land sea and air in a display of plucky heroism. Fast paced, fun, economic storytelling. Exactly what the rest of the film isn’t.

It’s not exactly asking for much, contextually, to expect Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn to be the next Indiana Jones. Like that killer adventure franchise before it, the Hollywood debut of Tintin follows the coupling of (former) imagination factory Spielberg with a much lauded director famous for his work in epic genre cinema, taking on a world thoroughly indebted to the early 20th century’s love of globe-trotting adventurers. Oh, and this time round, three of England’s biggest names in TV and cinema today happen to have co-scripted the thing, and one of those writers happens to be responsible for the recent injection of intelligence into the revived Doctor Who. Another one is famous for his hyper-kinetic storytelling in films such as Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. So no, it’s not exactly asking for much is it?

Perhaps Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was always setting itself up for a pratfall, given how loudly it declared its backstage kudos, parading it about to all and sundry. Certainly, it acts like it’s going to deliver on those promises in the aforementioned credit sequence. And then the film proper starts, and it all gently unravels – slowly and steadily – before your eyes. Tintin, as the do-gooder to end all do-gooders, needs a world filled to the brim with charm and heart-stopping adventure to offset his at times plank-like demeanour, and in the comics, Herge of course got this right – those books are loved for a reason. But in the process of translating this world to the screen, one can’t but feel that WETA and Spielberg got a bit too enamoured with their (admittedly fantastic) CGI work and forgot that the devil is in certain other, more filmic, details along the way.

(Such is life in the wireframe world)

Racking in at a weighty 106 minutes, what follows is a rather bland adventure in which Tintin (Jamie Bell) tracks down the secret of the Unicorn Man’O’War, racing against the somewhat irritating villain Sakharine (Daniel Craig, doing his best to channel a snarky school teacher) and forging a lifelong friendship with the alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) along the way  - picking up something of a heart for the film in doing so (there is a reason all of the TV promos are emphasising Haddock’s lines rather than Tintin’s. And this is a series where the moderate blandness of the protagonist is supposed to be endearing). The film seems to lurch from technically accomplished if emotionally uninvolving set piece to set piece, occasionally offering glimpses of real charm (Snowy, Haddock, Tintin when he’s able to get his shit together) that are swiftly undercut by utter frustration (Pegg and Frost’s Thompson and Thomson specifically). It all plays out a bit like a balloon having the wind let out – loud and proud to begin with, before dissolving into a half hearted whimper of final cold air at that last, critical moment.

It’s a bloody shame as the cards were laid out for something beautiful here, and at times, the film feels like it might still achieve this Platonic ideal, allowing you to walk away feeling fleetingly entertained if not actually impressed. Unfortunately, all this really does is confirm two things for me (assuming Jackson’s involvement was notable):

a)      Spielberg is irredeemable.
b)      Jackson wants you to fall asleep in the cinema. I fucking told you all, so I did.

Tintin ain’t bad. Like its titular hero, it’s colourless and inoffensive. For Tintin, that’s fine – it’s the world around him that fills in the details. For his film, however, it means the final product is a little cold. You expect more. And you’re right to. Given the talent involved, the unremarkableness of the final product is unforgivable.

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