In defence of The Adventures of Tintin: You don’t deserve a sequel to Steven Spielberg’s underrated classic
As the story goes, Steven Spielberg hadn’t heard of Tintin until some (presumably) irate Frenchmen kept bringing him up while discussing Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was the early-80s and Spielberg was, as he is to this day, a cinema god. And in creating one of the most iconic American pop-culture heroes he had inadvertently reminded an entire continent of a character it had grown up with.
His curiosity piqued - Spielberg, an American, was completely unaware of all the fuss around Tintin, a character who had traditionally been more popular in Europe, and, as you’d know, particularly beloved in India - he picked up his first Tintin book, and the rest, as they say, is history. The very next year after Indiana Jones had shattered box office records, he contacted Hergé and requested for the rights to Tintin. This was 1982. So Tintin’s journey to the big screen - excluding a couple of cheap French adaptations along the way - took the better part of three decades. At one point, Spielberg flirted with the idea of casting his AI star, Haley Joel Osment, in the lead role, but thankfully better sense prevailed.
It wasn’t until the late 2000s that talk of a Tintin movie heated up again. Spielberg felt that the advancements made to motion capture - as evidenced by the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 - finally afforded him the ability to faithfully create his vision and to put his own spin on Hergé’s signature ligne clair style. And there was only one company at the cutting edge of the technology. Spielberg, whose association with buddy George Lucas’ effects house, ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), went back decades, decided to contact Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta Digital. Little did he know that Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and 2005’s King Kong remake - both of which were cornerstones of motion capture filmmaking - was a Tintin obsessive. It was a match made in heaven. Jackson sent back test footage of Snowy, in which he made a cameo as Captain Haddock. Spielberg was convinced motion capture was the way to go.
Motion capture, for those of you who don’t know, involves real actors being strapped into leotards with sensors stuck all over their bodies and faces. Their movements are captured by computers and translated into animated characters, retaining the nuances of their performance. Motion capture has come a long way in the last two decades - legitimate cries were made to nominate Andy Serkis for an Oscar for his performance as Caesar in the Planet of the Apes movies. Serkis is now considered a motion capture expert, and his Captain Haddock is in many ways the emotional anchor of Spielberg’s movie. Tintin has always been a rather blank character, someone the readers could project their emotions onto and vicariously experience adventures through - but in giving Haddock a resonant backstory, Spielberg injected the film with his trademark sentimentality.
You can read the Ready Player One review here
He knew that to make a faithful Tintin movie it wasn’t obligated to laboriously replicate plots - writers Stephen Moffat and Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s script had combined three different stories - and it didn’t have to recreate entire panels - a divisive strategy that has attracted quite a lot of criticism for Zack Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen movies.
Instead, Spielberg was convinced that the only way to succeed was to capture the spirit of the stories and the characters. To remind devoted fans of their youth is the most potent weapon a film such as this has in its arsenal. This is one of the biggest reasons why Marvel movies are so popular - those films aren’t telling stories from 50 years ago, but they’re certainly making 50-year-olds reconnect with their childhood. They’re the fountain of youth ageing fans need so desperately.
As a Tintin obsessive on par with Peter Jackson, I was enthralled by Spielberg’s vision. It didn’t matter that the movie made significant changes to the stories I had grown up reading, to the point that my books look like one of those yellowed treasure maps that Tintin is prone to finding. It didn’t matter because the movie achieved that rare feat of zapping me back to my childhood bedroom - almost like Anton Ego from Ratatouille - rapt with attention, shaking my fist at Rastapopoulos’ dastardly schemes, cracking up at Jolyon Wagg’s unflinching idiocy, and wondering what new expletives Captain Haddock would use the next time someone mistook him for Cutts the butcher.
By capturing the essence of what it was to read a Tintin story, Spielberg won me over, and presumably introduced the wonderful world of Herge to a whole new generation of fans. And it could only have been done by a storyteller who’d wanted to tell these stories for 30 years. His energy is infectious -- watching some of the scenes in the movie, especially the 5-minute, unbroken Bagghar chase sequence almost gave the impression that Spielberg was like a child in a toy store, experimenting with the freedom that motion capture brings. Tintin features some of his most uninhibited camerawork - swooping and swirling around the action, always motivated by story - and also some of the most virtuosic editing I’ve ever seen in a big-budget Hollywood movie. The dissolves during the maritime sequences are a work of art, and infinitely better than anything in all those Pirates of the Caribbean movies combined.
It’s true that not everyone was pleased with the movie - the Americans lazily compared it to Indiana Jones, utterly failing to recognise the irony - and the Europeans, especially the Belgians and the French, were understandably possessive about these characters. It earned mostly positive reviews and turned a decent profit - occasionally, everyone involved will allude to a sequel, but no luck so far. Although, it’s worth keeping in mind that if everything had worked out perfectly, it wouldn’t have needed defending.