This review was requested by patron Purr Elise. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Hello all you beautiful readers! This is just a quick word to say thanks for your patience, thanks for all your congratulations and an especially big thank you for all your kind words and wishes for the wee Mump-stricken Mini Mouse (it actually turned out to not be mumps, just a viral infection so that was a relief). Anyway, at long last here is the Tintin review.
The popularity of Tintin fascinates me like a Victorian lady of mysterious background.
I don’t mean that I’m surprised that the Tintin books are so stupendously popular across the civilized world.
That’s just a case of the market rewarding good product. Hergé’s Tintin books are visually appealing, well-told adventures with humour that translates very well across cultures. It’s not surprising that they sell well. I mean the popularity of the character Tintin himself fascinates me, because he shouldn’t work as a protagonist. In my Asterix review I called Tintin “one of the most generic characters in all of fiction” and I stand by that. He doesn’t have a single defining trait that you can really hang your hat on. He has the traits a character needs to get reliably in and out of adventures; curiousity, bravery, quick wits and a willingness to help others, and that’s about it. He’s just Adventure Hero in its most pure and undiluted form with no distinct personality or identifying traits. And lest you think I consider him “generic” because he’s a white male, consider that he’s not even all that white or all that male. Although nominally Belgian, if I hadn’t mentioned it would you even know he was? Does he come across as particularly Belgian?
Nor is he particularly “male”. You could swap out Tintin for a female character and her dialogue and actions wouldn’t seem jarringly out of place. And then there’s that matter of his orientation. Despite all the fandom speculation about his relationship with Captain Haddock, I’d argue that there’s more textual evidence for Tintin being asexual, (of course, these were originally comics for children published in a conservative Catholic magazine so it’s not like you’d expect to see much of the hard fucking, regardless). Tintin is almost defiantly featureless. Even as a hero he’s distinctly middle-of-the-road. He’s a capable fighter, but he’s no Batman. An able detective, but hardly a Holmes. He’s a crack shot, but he uses a gun so infrequently you might read several books and never know. And then there’s his personal history. Who are his parents? Does he have any siblings? What paper does he, supposedly a journalist, work for?
And it’s not like Hergé was just bad at characterisation, the stories are filled with memorable and distinct oddballs. So what gives? Why does Tintin have such appeal?
I have a theory. Do you know which character Tintin actually reminds me of more than any other?
I’d argue that Tintin, like Mario, is less a character in the conventional sense and more like a player avatar, a figure who provides an entry point into the story for the reader and is non-descript enough to allow them to be fully immersed in the adventure. I wouldn’t have thought it would work, but then I’m not the guy who’s sold 200 million copies worldwide so what do I know?
Mais oui. Anyway, 200 million Tintin books have been sold worldwide and they’ve been read by people all over the globe, including five or six Americans. One of those Americans was Stephen Spielberg who first became aware of the series when reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark kept comparing Indy to Tintin.
Hergé, luckily enough, was a big Spielberg fan and after his death his widow agreed to give Spielberg the movie rights. A live action version of Tintin went into pre-production in the early eighties, with Jack Nicholson being considered for Captain Haddock. Because it was Hollywood in the eighties and cocaine is a hell of a drug.
That version never got traction and the rights bounced back between Spielberg and the Hergé estate for a few decades until finally Spielberg committed to a CGI motion-capture film with effects work provided by Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop.
The movie finally came out in 2011. Got great reviews. Did excellent box office. And then…
That was kinda it. Call it the Avatar effect, where a movie manages to be a huge success while leaving next to no mark of the cultural landscape. Spielberg’s been talking about completing the trilogy but it’s been eight years now and I don’t think there’s any real interest or appetite for it. Call it the Avatar effect.
The movie begins in Brussels where intrepid young reporter William Chuzzleforth Tintin is sitting for a portrait with a street artist who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hergé. The artist reveals the painting which is, naturally enough, Tintin drawn in the Hergé style.
Tintin’s dog, Snowy, sees a suspicious man slinking around the town square and filching valuables from the local citizenry like a common sneak thief harrumph harrumph. So now’s a good time to talk about the animation. Regular readers of this blog will know that photo-realistic CGI humans are at the top of my list of things that terrify the bejesus out of me so you will not be surprised at all to hear me say that I absolutely love this animation.
Don’t ask me how they did it. It’s photo realistic humans sculpted in flesh to look like Herge’s character designs and that should be unutterably hideous but for some reason it isn’t.
Witchcraft was presumably involved.
Anyway, before Snowy can crack this case wide open, he’s found by Tintin who spots a beautiful model ship being sold by a local vendor and decides to buy it. The ship is a Restoration-Era British man of war named the Unicorn and Tintin is instantly smitten with it. This is what kicks off our whole movie and there is a pleasing simplicity to it. Tintin just wants that ship. He doesn’t have some kind of history with it, his dad wasn’t lost at sea fighting Portuguese men o’war, he just thinks the ship looks really cool and he wants it. He’s not a terribly deep individual, our Tintin. He buys the ship just as another man, an American, arrives to buy it. They American, a schlubby guy who looks so nervous you’d think his grandmother was going through his search history, offers to pay two pound for the ship, which is a lot of money in Britain, where this movie is not set. Tintin refuses and the American tells him that he doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into and that he’s messing with some serious people. And Tintin’s all “I’m part of the model ship collecting scene, you think this is the first time someone’s tried to kill me? This is the life I chose.”
No sooner has that guy shuffled off when another, far more villainous looking individual named Sakharine shows up and offers to buy the ship from Tintin. But Tintin tells him that it’s his ship and that it’s not for sale. Sakharine tells him that he’s recently bought Marlinspike Hall, which was owned by the Haddock family, whose ancestor Sir Francis Haddock captained the Unicorn, the very ship Tintin is now holding (people were a lot shorter back then). Sakharine insists that this means Tintin should give him the ship for…reasons but Tintin is none too impressed and bids Sakharine a very good day to you sir, indeed.
Tintin returns home and puts the the ship in pride of place in his living room, right where it can be seen when he has girls over.
But when a cat breaks into the apartment, Snowy chases it until he knocks over the ship model, breaking one of the masts. Unseen by Tintin, a small metal cylinder falls out of the broken mast and rolls under the dresser. Tintin is intrigued by Sakharine’s hints of the Unicorn’s history and decides to go to the place more filled with adventure than any other.
I swear, if this guy was any more square you could cut yourself on his corners. At the library he learns that before he died, Sir Francis hinted that there was a secret to the model ship, but that only a “true Haddock” could decipher it.
Tintin returns home to find that the model ship has been stolen and he heads straight for Marlinspike Hall. Because you steal from Tintin, he doesn’t call the police. He’ll break into your home, take back what’s his and kill you and your entire family. Wait. Just the first two. Inside the mansion he finds the ship but gets knocked unconscious by Sakharine’s butler, Nestor. When he wakes up, Sakharine (not unreasonably) wants to know what the hell, brah. Tintin angrily accuses Sakharine of stealing his toy ship but when he gets a closer look at it he realises that the mast isn’t broken and that Sakharine’s model is not his. Turns out there are three of the darn things, and Sakharine already has one. Tintin is pretty embarassed about the whole “breaking and entering” business, but quickly pivots to asking why Sir Francis had three model ships, and why Sakaharin is trying to collect them. Sakharine tells him that he’s asking a lot of questions and that people who ask questions often come to sticky ends, he hears, and has Nestor show Tintin the way out. Nestor, who clearly does not like Sakharine, hints to Tintin that he should make sure he found “all the pieces” from his broken ship, wink wink.
Back at his flat, Tintin finds that the place has been turned over and ransacked. He finds the metal cylinder though, which contains a scroll of paper. Suddenly, the American from before shows up at his door and gets riddled with bullets. Tintin chases after the attackers and in the confusion Tintin falls prey to the pickpocket that Snowy saw before in the market square who steals his wallet with the piece of parchment inside. Tintin and Snowy then get kidnapped by some uncouth sailors and is taken aboard a ship called the Karaboudjan. He escapes from the hold and finds himself in the cabin of the captain, Archibald Haddock, whose crew have taken over the ship and have kept him locked in his cabin and kept him under sedated with sweet, sweet booze.
So Captain Haddock is probably the most popular character in the whole Tintin franchise, to the point where the later books have him as the main character in all but name.
I wish I liked Andy Serkis’ performance as Haddock more, I really do. He’s not doing anything wrong, but I was reared on the Tintin animated series and David Fox will always be my Haddock. The Scottish accent Serkis gives Haddock is just jarring to me. Speaking of being “jarred”, Haddock is unable to answer any of Tintin’s questions about Sir Francis’ secret legacy because he’s been conducting a decades-long scientific inquiry into the effects of replacing all fluid in a human body with whiskey. Tintin and Haddock escape the Karaboudjan in a life boat and after a long series of adventure set-pieces faithfully recreated from the comics, they find themselves wandering through a Moroccan desert 300 miles from anything in a liquid state. This causes Haddock come down with a crippling case of sobriety and he suddenly remembers the story of how his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, fought a naval battle against a notorious pirate named Red Rackham.
This scene is where I think the movie’s choice of CGI mo-cap really pays off; it’s hands down the most thrilling naval battle I’ve ever seen on film. If it was in traditional animation, it wouldn’t have the same impact, and if it was in live action it would be flat out impossible, as sailors and pirates go flinging from mast to mast amid impossibly vast churning waves. But the CGI is so good and tactile and weighty that you can almost believe that what you’re watching is real. My only quibble is that the whole thing is a flashback with only distant impact on the actual main story. Haddock relates the tale but then collapses due to the effect of being drier than a lesbian at a Magic Mike screening.
The pair are rescued by the French Foreign legion and Tintin implores Haddock to finish the story but unfortunately sobriety has caused him to forget everything and yeah, I’ve heard that excuse. Snowy fixes the problem by swapping Haddock’s water with medicinal alcohol, thus causing the poor Captain to fall off the wagon so hard he leaves a dent in the Oregon trail. But, then, Snowy is a wire fox terrier so you’d expect that.
After going on a drunken, halluncinatory rampage through a barracks filled with some of the most badass soldiers in the history of warfare and somehow not getting a bayonet through every orifice on his body, Haddock recalls that the Unicorn was captured by Red Rackham and all of her crew put to death with the exception of Francis Haddock. Haddock was forced to reveal the Unicorn’s secret cargo, a treasure big enough to give Scrooge McDuck a priapism.
Francis Haddock escaped, set fire to the Unicorn’s magazine and blew the ship, the treasure and Red Rackham to Davy Jones’ locker.
Also, while flashbacking, Haddock realises that Red Rackham was identical to Sakharine, and that Sakharine is out for vengeance for something that happened to his ancestor three hundred years before he was born, like any of us would in that situation. So Tintin and Haddock finally figure out what’s going on; Francis left clues to the location of the sunken treasure of the Unicorn in the three model ships, Sakharine wants to get to it before Haddock, Haddock wants to get to it before Sakharine. Game on.
They follow Sakharine to Bagghar, a port town in Morocco where the final Unicorn model is being kept behind unbreakable glass by the local sultan. To break the glass, Sakharine has arranged for the famed opera singer Bianca Castafiore to sing for the sultan, knowing that the power of her voice will shatter the glass and allow him to steal the ship. Damn Sakharine, where did you learn to come up with such logical and unconvuluted plans?
In Bagghar, Tintin meets up with Thomson and Thompson, two police officers and friends of his. They succeeded in capturing the pickpocket from before and, on finding Tintin’s wallet in his possessions, travelled all the way to Morocco to return it to him because the Belgian police take their job seriously, damn it. Unfortunately, not only does Sakharine manage to get the scroll from the sultan’s ship, his men also manage to mug Haddock and get Tintin’s scroll too, meaning Sakharine now has all the clues he needs to find Rackham’s treasure. Tintin and Haddock chase after Sakharine and also try to blow him up with a GODDAMN BAZOOKA.
This leads to an absolutely fantastic chase scene that I just have to share with you.
It’s just a congo line of great action, sight gags and set pieces just building and building until it builds to a sublime crescendo of perfectly constructed chaos. Sakharine threatens to drown Haddock and Snowy if Tintin doesn’t give him the three scrolls and Tintin…seems disturbingly okay with that. Then again Tintin probably knows that alcohol is less dense than water so Haddock’s chances of drowning are virtually nil. Anyway, Sakharine gets all three scrolls and vamooses.
Sakharine returns home to Belgium (?) but finds Thompson, Thomson, Tintin and Haddock waiting for him as they were able to track the Karaboudjan by tracking the ship’s radio frequencies.
At the dock, Haddock and Sakharine finally settle this in the traditional maritime style; with a good old fashioned crane fight. Haddock finally defeats Sakharine. With the three scrolls recovered, they follow the clues which lead them right back to Marlinspike manor where Nestor the Butler welcomes Captain Haddock back to his ancestral home. They find some of the treasure and another clue as to the location of the sunken Unicorn and the rest of the treasure, all waiting for them in that sequel which will be released any day now.
Tintin barely puts a foot wrong and I can’t point to a single element in it that doesn’t work. But at the same time I can’t say I love it. It’s perfectly competent, enjoyable fare but it just doesn’t set my loins ablaze. I feel about this the same way that I think the vast majority of people did when they first saw it on it’s release:
Good film. Enjoyed it. Never need to see it again.
Animation 17/20: Turns out this motion capture CGI malarkey can actually work and all it takes is the presence of American cinema’s greatest living director.
Leads 15/20: Jamie Bell embodies Tintin to a scarily accurate degree. I don’t know how he got him to sound exactly the same as how he sounds in my head, and suspect he may be reading my thoughts.
Villain 15/20: Daniel Craig gives a surprisingly plummy turn as villain Sakharine.
Supporting Characters 15/20: Serkis doesn’t quite work for me as Haddock, but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are pretty much perfect as Thompson and Thomson.
Music 17/20: Oh! John Williams wrote a fantastic score! What a shocking turn of events! Who could have predicted this incredibly unlikely eventuality!?
FINAL SCORE: 78%
NEXT UPDATE: 23 May 2019
NEXT TIME: Well, while we’re in nautical humour…