Having more or less forced myself to go to the movie theater this morning to take in what should have been the blockbuster event of the year, I now feel compelled to reflect a little on the experience. For a film that has been touted for the past two years as the next big breakthrough in film technology, the recent trailers actually made it pretty hard to get excited about the film. The first teasers played up the film’s uncanny photorealism and the more visually spectacular elements, while more recent trailers shifted the focus to the characters and the film’s combination of humor and action. None of this, however, seemed to move the film definitively into the ‘must-see’ category: who, besides European comic book fans and impressionable kids, will be terribly eager to see this film? Several hours after having actually seen the thing, that question is still on my mind.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is by no means a total disaster. It lumbers to life occasionally, especially in those moments when Andy Serkis cuts loose with his lively, rarely-sober Captain Haddock mo-cap performance, or when Spielberg gets his act together for a moment and treats us to an action set piece that actually feels both organic and coherent (which happens far less frequently than one might expect from him). But without fail, these moments are cut short by awkwardly written, inconsistently performed scenes that go to show that the combination of Hergé’s famous ligne claire and the action-oriented Hollywood blockbuster are a marriage of convenience at best.
The Tintin comic books are finicky, densely designed, word-heavy comics without very much action, featuring a quaint sense of humor that is simultaneously silly and understated. As the well-known Simpsons episode that spoofed Tintin’s creaky Gallic adventures accurately showed, it’s not the kind of thing that lends itself easily to incorporation into the standard-issue big-budget blockbuster – even (or perhaps especially) in the hands of Steven Spielberg. Numerous scenes in the film overflow with unsubtle references to the source material, illustrating quite obviously that the production team was infatuated with the comic books and wished to do them some kind of justice.
This issue of fidelity however ushers in many of the screenwriters’ worst decisions: Tintin for instance narrating all his thoughts while the action takes place (“What can this be, Snowy? It’s a map!”) may have been necessary on the page, but too often this clumsy device comes across as if we’re listening to some strange audio track for the blind. And as the film continues to shuffle uncomfortably back and forth between re-enactments of scenes from the comic book and wildly over-the-top action sequences, one continues to wonder who exactly the audience for this whole exercise is supposed to be. Much of the inconsistently written screenplay is extremely childish, lacking the kind of sophistication that Pixar routinely brings to its G-rated productions, while the dizzying action and often baffling plot seem geared towards a decidedly adult audience.
Perhaps the key problem with the whole premise of a mainstream Tintin film is that the character and his adventures are just hopelessly archaic. The blank-slate protagonist embodies some kind of postwar Gallic ideal of androgynous masculinity: entirely uninterested in women (who rarely appear at all in the comics; the only female character in the entire film is the ostentatious and briefly-seen opera singer Bianca Castafiore), he represents the spirit of rational inquisitiveness and ingenuity, while also playing straight man to captain Haddock’s excessive and out-of-control clowning. It would have been interesting to see an attempt to adapt this fundamentally colonial figure from a more contemporary point of view. But alas, Spielberg and his team of screenwriters instead preferred to leave Tintin mired in a nostalgic, poorly defined, but decidedly ahistorical world. As in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tintin’s brief visit to (colonial?) Morocco serves merely as an excuse to indulge in the worst kind of Orientalist stereotyping. But while Indy at least got to spar with Sallah (played by a portly caucasian actor, but never mind) on more or less equal terms, everyone wearing a turban in the Tintin movie exists only to get out of the way of our hero, or else to serve as the butt of a poorly conceived joke at the Moroccans’ expense.