The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
What It Is
For some of us, the most delightful star of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn will be Snowy, a most faithful and clever fox terrier. True, he belongs to the titular star, Tintin (acted by Jamie Bell and motion-captured), and true as well that he does mostly do as he's told. But unlike so many loyal canines companions in the movies — ever eager to please and always good for a reaction shot — Snowy has a distinct personality, inquisitive and brave, and occasionally even taking off on his own, such that he’s an altogether engaging character unto himself.
This is helpful, because Steven Spielberg’s rambunctious film is rather cluttered with characters and events, and the solidly charming friendship between Snowy and his boy. They first appear as a team, making their way through a lively open-air marketplace. Just as Snowy chases after a pickpocket, on his own (a chase that introduces a key plot point for later in the film), Tintin initiates another plot point when he purchases a model ship from a street vendor. Within moments, another buyer appears, and Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is angry that he’s missed his chance. His keen interest in the ship — called the Unicorn — piques Tintin’s (“What secrets do you hold?” he asks the model).
Soon he’s involved in a search for a secret treasure, aided by Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose 17th century ancestor captained the Unicorn. It happens that Captain Haddock and Sakharine share some historical connections and conflicts, that Sakharine means to avenge an old wrong against his own ancestor, and that Haddock is something of a hard drinker (as sea captains are to be in boys’ adventure tales).
Though Captain Haddock promises more than once to stop drinking, it’s not until late in the trio’s escapades that he finally sees it might be better to be sober for some of the stunts they must manage. Hunting for the treasure in Europe and North Africa, the team travels by car, ship, lifeboat, and sea plane (which crash-lands in the desert), and then by camel. It turns out that Tintin is also an expert motorcycle rider, which allows for an exciting chase scene. And the Captain engages in a duel on a ships’ loading dock, as he and his opponent are both operating cranes: the hubbub goes on a bit, but at last the relationships are sorted, the treasure is found, and the bad guy duly punished.
All this as the finale opens to the way for a sequel, too.
Why It’s Fun
The animation is vibrant and energetic, especially with regard to settings (from deserts to sitting rooms) and background details (from dust on books to headlines on newsprint, pedestrians’ shoes to sailors’ scarves).
Even apart from the actual imagery, the characters are well-drawn as such. This even if they are sometimes imprecisely motivated (they tend to do things because the plot needs them to do them) or given too little screen time (the film sometimes seems to crowd in book fan favorites, then skips ahead to another episode).
Both Tintin and the captain are fond of spirited expressions (“Great snakes!”) and Haddock is also given to entertaining self-reflections (“I don’t remember anything about anything! My memory is not what it used to be”).
Most of all, the “adventures” of the title are just that: breathlessly paced, sometimes episodic, and many.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the Tintin comic books by Belgian artist Hergé will be eager to see whether the film matches their high expectations. The fact that it makes use of three stories — “The Crab with the Golden Claws,” “The Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” — means there’s almost too much plot crammed into the film, and a few too many characters, and those familiar with the original material may have an easier time following who’s who and where than those viewers coming to the movie without such background.
The film’s use of several stories means that it juggles several plotlines, cutting back and forth among the search conducted by Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Snowy, the related pursuit by Sakharine (described as a “sour-faced man with a sugary name”) of our heroes, and then a not very related strand, wherein a couple of nice-enough twin police officers (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) go looking for the pickpocket.
What To Be Aware Of
Villains smoke cigarettes, sometimes in close-up and usually when they’re plotting something.
Crooks carry and use weapons, including guns, swords (one hidden in a cane), and knives: their use is not bloody, but tension and noise level pick up when the shooting starts.
The action sequences, especially during the film’s last 30 minutes, are boisterous, making full use of the 3D animation and some point-of-view camerawork, so these images might be a little wild for viewers unused to such visual commotion.
When Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock are tossed off the Captain’s ship, they do brief battle with a shark.
A crucial need for fuel is answered when the captain belches his alcohol-suffused breath into an engine.
Tintin and the captain have a brief falling out, when Tintin (wrongly) believes Haddock’s drinking has caused them problems.
A wealthy sheikh appears briefly, stereotypically self-important.
Girls have precious little to do in this film: save for a landlady and an opera diva (whose high note serves a plot point), the characters are the most boyish of boys.
7 out of 10
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Joe Starr
US Premiere: December 21, 2011
UK Premiere: November 26, 2011