I try not to judge a movie before I see it; in fact, I even try to avoid hearing anything about it, outside of the trailers that they show before other movies, but I must admit I was not particularly hoping for much from Tintin, a worldwide comics icon about which I would have to spend several years in buddhist meditation in order to care less. However, if anything’s going to turn you around on this film (unless you’re already an avid Tintin fan, in which case, congratulations! It must be nice to be the first of something), it’s the awesome title sequence of Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn, which introduces us to an absolute upper crust of Hollywood talent including Peter Jackson and Daniel Craig, along with crowd favourites Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Andy Serkis, and sometime star Jamie Bell (Jumper, Billy Elliott), not to mention Steven Spielberg taking a break from all those ‘executive producer’ gigs he’s had over the last 6 months to return as director. As well as the names, the visuals of the ‘Catch Me if you Can’ crossed with ‘The Pink Panther’ intro sequence actually managed to get me excited about seeing the film. Unfortunately, it turns out this excitement was misplaced.
Writing duties on the film fell to the slightly unlikely combination of Brits Steven Moffat (best known for some excellent stints on Doctor Who, including series standout episode Blink, and last year’s BBC series Sherlock), Edgar Wright (director of the excellent Shaun of the Dead and the execrable Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and Joe Cornish (writer/director of this year’s stylistically very astute but ultimately unsatisfying Attack the Block), with the result that the script is a rather unremarkable and somewhat plodding journey between plot points, with a lot of pretty visuals, uneventful action sequences and an awful lot of stationary exposition in between. With a WGA writers strike forcing Moffat (who must take credit as the safest pair of writing hands amongst the three) to abandon the project after this first film, it is unknown to what extent we have ‘creative differences’, or possibly just too many cooks spoiling what is already a fairly weak broth.
I say first film, as it seems that these days Peter Jackson is incapable of making just one film where three will do: Tintin is slated for a trilogy, of which this is very deliberately the first part, and so the Secret of the Unicorn often feels rather dragged out, stretching what is a fairly straightforward story into an unnecessarily elongated epic, though the filmmakers do deserve credit for giving this chapter at least a modicum of resolution before moving on to what comes next. Whether the sequels will ever materialise is likely to depend partly on audience reaction, and mostly on whether or not Jackson and Spielberg already have filming underway for the other two (which is almost guaranteed).
So, what’s the whole thing about? Well, Tintin is a young (we’re never sure how young, but he does drink, lives by himself and owns, apparently legally, a handgun) reporter, who happens to buy a model ship. As the world’s luckiest/unluckiest person, he buys a model ship that almost instantly leads to him being burgled, shot at, and drawn into a web of incredibly generic mystery that only the most hardened 12 year old would fail to be intrigued by. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say it involves a sunken treasure ship, three slips of paper each containing a piece of the puzzle and the rest you can piece together yourself and be almost guaranteed to be correct.
Being a computer animated film with some serious budget behind it, one expects excellence, and the spectacular and convincing work of the background artists, which manages in some scenes to completely fool the eye into believing that at least parts of the scene were filmed, rather than rendered, does not disappoint. That the ultimate goal of the CGI artist is to make their work unnoticeable is as unfortunate a vicious circle as that of other largely-commodotised cinematic professions these days, most noticeably their close cousins the physical effects team, which leads to the situation where they should be commended for making things that are realistic to the point at which they become unnoticeable. With this standard in mind, the team behind Tintin deserve the highest praise.
Unfortunately, such work is neither universal nor possible where the filmmakers have also chosen a deliberately unreal aesthetic, such as the ‘performance capture’ technique used here, first touted in The Polar Express, and more recently seen (but not by many) in Disney clunker Mars Needs Moms, a creepy animation style that goes for a strange mix of hair-perfect accuracy and cartoonish exaggeration, leaving most characters stranded deep in the uncanny valley. Tintin himself, unlike most characters, who either fall into the moustache-twirling stereotypes or pure-hearted heroes of both comics and animated filmmaking, is a largely emotionless blank slate (both as a character and as a visual presence), left to be carried along by a plot that he is, for reasons unknown, forced to spell out to the viewer in a style that might be appropriate for a childrens’ comic book, but is utterly tedious in a film: especially one given over so unequivocally to flashy visuals.
Joining him is entertaining if one-dimensional drunk Captain Haddock, portrayed by Andy Serkis, desperately over-acting in an attempt to give the piece some heart, interest, excitement or pathos; any one of these would do, but the actor he’s playing off in Jamie Bell’s has infinitely less animation than his digital counterpart. Seeing him going through either happy inebriation, miserable withdrawal or any of the myriad stages of the high-functioning alcoholic in between is amusing for a short time, but given no greater characteristic than this and a flimsy redemption arc, even Serkis’s clowning can’t stop it from becoming tedious.
Apart from these main two, bit-players come and go, including the momentarily entertaining Thomson twins of Pegg and Frost (unnecessary but not unwelcome), and able but one-note villain Daniel Craig, none of whom make the slightest impression in terms of presence or, really, relevance to the story, which, in a somewhat fitting way, turns out to be the half-remembered tale of a drunk that has already been told many times before.
As the John Williams score works overtime to try and convince you that interesting, important, or at the very least new events are happening on screen, blaring at you that stuff is happening whilst hundreds of thousands of dollars are wasted on what would be mundane and pedestrian action sequences in a live-action film, Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn circles around the same plot points that even the youngest members of the audience figured out twenty minutes ago (or lost interest in completely) before setting itself up for what I can only describe as the least anticipated sequel since the Sex and the City movie.
More people get rendered unconscious in this film than if they gave away free samples of Rohypnol at a Narcoleptics Anonymous meeting