The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (PG, 107 mins)
Director: Steven Spielberg
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
First off, it’s an adaptation of what is a fairly niche property, Hergé’s 80 year old Belgian comic book. And, unknown for a film of this scale from the world’s most famous and successful filmmaker, it’s out in Europe now but won’t hit cinemas in the States until Christmas, the reason given that its Euro-ancestry makes it only right that it should play here first.
More to the point, the financiers will be praying it already has some hundreds of millions in the bank from its worldwide run before it arrives Stateside. That’s because the other massive gamble is that this is a motion capture animation, much like that notorious disaster from earlier this year, Mars Needs Moms, which was one of, if not the, biggest flops in box office history.
But it will sell on Spielberg’s name, and hopefully it will sell based on the fact that it’s really very good indeed, a rollicking adventure that contains several moments of unrivalled cinematic exhilaration from a director whom we’d thought had forgotten how to have fun.
We meet our hero, young reporter Tintin (voiced and performance captured by Jamie Bell) as he buys a model ship in a market, one which a lot of people seem keen to get their hands on, including the devious Sakharine (Daniel Craig).
The ship is the Unicorn, a replica of a real boat lost since the 17th century, and thought to have gone down with its secret treasure. Kidnapped by Sakharine, Tintin meets Captain Haddock, whose ancestor was captain of the Unicorn, and is played as a drunken Scotsman with a mostly agreeable but occasionally fishy accent by Andy Serkis.
It’s a blend of intrigue and action that spends much of the first half introducing plenty of engaging supporting characters, like Tintin’s dog Snowy, who frequently appears to be smarter than he is, and the useless detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg).
But it hits its stride during a marvellously inventive biplane sequence which takes Tintin and Haddock to Africa and the meat of the adventure, and an equally impressive flashback featuring the original Unicorn captain and his pirate encounter.
It’s at this point the action barely pauses for breath and when it most begins to resemble an Indy flick. The centrepiece, a chase through a Moroccan town, is truly breathtaking, although this does make it seem like the film peaks early.
A pertinent question might have been why it’s been filmed as an animation at all, and not simply live action. The answer to that lies in an astonishingly detailed level of richness and opulence in the design that would have been hard to achieve on any budget, and action sequences so fluid and imaginative that they would have been impossible as live action without the need for so much CGI that it would look like a cartoon anyway.
The issue of dead eyes and waxy features that has blighted so many mo-cap efforts also seems to have been addressed, with faces full of life and expression, although every once in a while the characters do move like they're on strings.
But that’s a tiny flaw, and let’s hope the gamble pays off, so that in a couple of years from now we’ll be enjoying the proposed Peter Jackson sequel, followed by many more Tintin adventures to come.