Trailer Tuesday - The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

From a box office perspective, out of all the films still to be released in 2011, the one I'm most curious about is CGI family adventure The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. You see, I'm fascinated by the film's possible market appeal.

On the plus side, the project is directed by Steven "Indiana Jones" Spielberg (helming an animated film for the first time) with Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson (who plans to direct the Tintin sequel) looking on. You really don't get filmmakers more successful than these bespectacled beardies when it comes to blockbuster adventures. More importantly, The Adventures of Tintin is based on Belgian cartoonist Hergé's beloved comic books, which have entertained hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers around the world over the past 80+ years.

For the record, the Tintin comic series centres on the title character, a talented young investigative journalist who, with his dog Snowy, travels to various exotic locales, getting to the bottom of mysteries, searching for treasure and solving crime cases fraught with danger. Tintin's major allies include sarcastic Captain Haddock, buffoon policemen Thomson and Thompson, and absent-minded physicist, Professor Calculus.

Spielberg's film combines the Tintin stories The Secret of the Unicorn, its continuation Red Rackham's Treasure and The Crab with the Golden Claws, in which Tintin first meets Haddock. As the trailer reveals, the movie sees Tintin forming an unlikely partnership with the brash seaman as they hunt for sunken treasure ship, the Unicorn... while other dubious parties attempt to beat them to it. Sounds like a gore-free Indiana Jones for kids, right? What could go wrong?

Well, there are several concerns that could scupper Secret of the Unicorn critically and commercially. I initially wrote about the project back in late 2007 and my worries haven't changed. The first of these is Tintin's visual styling – seeing as the 3D film has been created using performance capture technology, and has been animated in New Zealand by Weta Digital. Jamie Bell is Tintin, Andy "Gollum" Serkis Haddock, Daniel Craig a twist on pirate Red Rackham, and Shaun of the Dead duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are Thomson and Thompson.

Peter Jackson has described the performance capture characters by saying "We're making them look photorealistic; the fibres of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people – but real Herge people!" Unfortunately though, performance capture animation (as opposed to performance capture effects in live-action cinema) has yet to strike a cord with critics and audiences. Even if the Tintin characters have cartoony features, there's something about performance capture expressions and movements that are immediately off-putting. The Polar Express, Monster House and Mars Needs Moms – admittedly Beowulf and A Christmas Carol fared better – all failed to touch audiences emotionally, seeing as the films were stranded on the other side of the "Uncanny Valley."

I don't think it's surprising then that until now all Tintin promotional material, including the teaser trailer, has kept the characters' faces hidden. You don't want to repel your audience upfront.

The Tintin film's second potential stumbling block is its strangely flavourless feel. Admittedly I haven't read the Tintin comics, but here, as with the animated TV series (which I did watch), everything comes across as very vanilla. Sure the film's visuals are unique, and Serkis's Haddock is destined to steal the show, but the world depicted and its humour seem very flat, coming from another era. This is in comparison to something like Asterix, another European comic with worldwide appeal – which is a lot more manic, idiosyncratic and instantly identifiable. I just keep wondering whether today's audiences, especially American audiences who I suspect are largely unfamiliar with Tintin comics, will see the appeal of something so "clean", restrained and old school.

All these concerns about The Adventures of Tintin aside, I'm likely to be in the cinema on opening weekend, largely because of my intense curiosity... and because of oh-so-cute Snowy.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn releases in North America, and South Africa, on Friday, 23 December.


Frank Rudy said…
Can't wait!
Bob Spector said…
I appreciate your thoughtful comments and, as a lifelong Herge fan, share your concerns.

But I beg of you--read a few of the books!

Start with "The Crab With the Golden Claws" as parts of its story are woven into the feature film.

The books have never translated well to either screen, big or small, but if anyone can do even partly well, it's these guys. Spielberg has been chasing the rights since 1980!

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