Sunday, 30 October 2011

Spielberg's Adventures of TiiinTiiin!

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's first Tintin film, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’, opened in the UK this week. I saw it in 3D yesterday afternoon with my kids. I’ve been a lover of the Tintin books since the age of 5. My first book was ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’, in which Tintin meets Haddock for the first time. This was a good choice by the friend of my father's who gave it to me as a present, for Tintin without Haddock, as the film makers were well aware, is like chips without cod. Perhaps for this reason the film of ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ loosely combines elements of both tales (if we take ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ as one adventure), although it plays with them freely and adds a lot more to them - or goes well over the top, depending on your point of view.

I went to see it with great anticipation but expecting not to be convinced by it. This wasn't because I thought it would be boring but because I couldn’t imagine how the simplicity and beauty of Hergé’s cartoons and plots could survive the sensory carpet bombing of computer-generated imagery and all it offers to film makers of great imagination, which Spielberg and Jackson are. And because it’s my - and my kids’ - childhood with which these clever guys and fellow Tintin lovers are playing.

‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ is spectacular, gorgeously realised and it races along. It is mostly respectful of Hergé’s characterisations and humour, even tipping its hat with some nice touches after his style, and in some scenes it quite beautifully and atmospherically recreates in its complex entirety the world that Hergé sought to distil on paper, although with the crucial difference that he asked our imaginations not our eyes to do the work of comprehending it. One of the best touches is the flea market with which the film, like the book, opens, and in which Tintin is presented with his portrait by none other than Hergé himself (this was not a nod to Hitchcock: Hergé did it himself more than once in his strips). I was so enchanted that I didn't notice whether money changed hands.

Tintin is well depicted and his features as well as his actions correctly are the calm eye around which the storm of other characters rages. Haddock is well done too, but I can say little more about that without some pain: for me, to animate him is comparable to portraying Allah, not because it’s heretical but because it’s impossible. Haddock is Hergé's Mr Micawber, who, as GK Chesterton once wrote, “... is not a man; he is a superman. We can only walk round and round Micawber wondering what we shall say.” Like him, I’ve been walking round and round Haddock for years wondering what I shall say and I still haven’t got it, so part of me is a bit upset that Spielberg and Jackson should even try to make him real, let alone make it public, and in 3D too. But that’s me. I tend to hold the same view about Basil Fawlty, so ignore me. I'll just point out that Haddock was - no is - English, not Scottish and that his first name, Archibald, to which we are treated too soon, was revealed only in the last completed book ‘Tintin and the Picaros’, and as a joke seemingly at Haddock’s expense, which was a bit unfair as it was Tintin who was getting Hergé down by then. No, Haddock's first name is Captain.

With regard to plot and the other characters, while the reconstituted story holds together well in its own terms, the film does commit some ingenious white-collar crimes (that is to say they'll probably go unpunished), and not simply because of its clever dovetailing of the two books. In the original ‘Secret of the Unicorn’ Sakharine is a red herring not a criminal mastermind. The Bird brothers, who don’t appear in the film and who occupy a fully functioning Marlinspike Hall, are the crooks seeking to match up the three scrolls of parchment hidden in the three replica ships which together are the key to the location of the original Unicorn’s treasure. The Thompsons are good, although their heads are perhaps a bit big and they didn't seem to be taking the business of cocking everything up seriously enough. The operatic diva Bianca Castafiore - somewhat blandly rendered, I thought, or did I expect more from her because I find her cartoon original sexy now that I’ve grown up? - appears in neither book, but is here the unwitting stooge whose high Cs are the only weapon that can break the bullet-proof glass behind which Omar ben Salaad has locked away the last replica ship that Sakharine covets. (Here, oddly, Haddock is seen to fancy Castafiore, a woman whom in the books he spends almost every waking hour trying to avoid.) Ben Salaad, who is the leader of a gang of opium runners in ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’, is just a rich Moroccan with a taste for opera and show. Allan, the scheming gangster who starts life as the drunken Haddock’s first mate aboard the ‘Karaboudjan’, on which the drugs are being smuggled, is well characterised but less powerful and forceful than he comes across in the books.

Curiously, Haddock’s alcoholism, not the mere sight of the first replica ship, is the key to unlocking his memory of the story of his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock’s battle with Red Rackham, who is depicted as Sakharine’s ancestor too, thus bringing elements of a blood feud and very Hollywoodian notions of 'destiny' into the picture. Ingenious in terms of the new plot, but come on! Likewise, on the quayside of Bhagghar with the ‘Karaboudjan’ having given them the slip, Haddock offers Tintin a most uncharacteristic homily on not giving in when it is normally Tintin, with reluctant but judicious administration of the nearest hard liquor to hand, who summons up Haddock’s Dutch but indefatigable courage. Above all, at the end of the film the needs of commerce outweigh those of faithfulness when Tintin finds a fourth parchment which reveals there is more treasure than is held in the small stone globe at the foot of the Eagle of Patmos in Marlinspike's cellars. And of course inflation alone dictates that audiences would expect nothing less, so expect a sequel soon, combining ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ with ... ‘Explorers on the Moon’, perhaps?

Overall ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ is an exciting, amusing, brilliantly realised and clever movie, and both I and the kids enjoyed it. All CGI films are pretty exciting, and even those that are less so tend to be ingenious. That, rather than any issues of quality, is one of my problems with this one. The capabilty and apparently limitless potential of CGI, both as a tool and a plaything, demand that film makers seek ever better effects from it. It’s also what the box office expects, so they are doubly bound. No triply, because capability and demand unite in a medium that asks nothing more of us than that we sit and absorb the spectacle. It does all our imagining for us, and one day we will find it hard to imagine what it doesn't provide.

One result is that CGI movies are starting to become formulaic. Too often I’m finding that I’ve seen (and heard) them before, not least in the interchangable scores and the required homilies of the type referred to above. In particular, the big action scenes are starting to pall, and especially those that act as the films’ climaxes, which too often are mere displays of virtuosity. They bring to mind many of Carlos Santana's live guitar solos from the late 1970s, in which that brilliant musician seemed determined, despite his talent for beauty and expression, to end every song, however melodic, in a deafening wall of sound. ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ ends with an overblown and implausible battle of dockyard loading cranes operated by Haddock and Sakharine that has nothing to do with the books from which the film is drawn and everything to do with CGI conventions.

I’m not saying that film versions of Tintin should (or could) be faithful to Hergé’s original cartoons, nor that Hergé wasn’t himself constrained by the conventions of his own genre and the market place of his time, nor that it's not OK to take simple pleasures from his work. My fear is that this immaculately realised conception of Tintin, leaving nothing to the imagination and supported by worldwide marketing and merchandising reach, will become synonymous with what we understand of him and the man who created him, and that it will be the old, dusty, child-mauled, gloriously unKindlable books that will be the afterthought, as it were.

Therefore this film is a call to all of us to read the original Tintin books as soon as possible, whether for the first time or not, even if, like me, you have to sellotape them back together, before our folk memory of them becomes the product of a computer keyboard, however ingenious, and not of the pen of that great man Georges Remi, however dead.

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