Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Spielberg-Peter Jackson Collaboration

“The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” the first collaboration between Spielberg and Peter Jackson, two of cinema’s most visionary producer-directors, proves to be a match made in heaven, a teaming that brings out the distinctive talents and unique strengths of each filmmaker.


“Tintin,” which received its worls premieres in Brussels and Paris, is opening in France, the U.K. and other countries October 26.  Paramount will release the film statestide December 21, the same week that another Spielberg Oscar-caliber picture, “The War Horse” opens.  (What a year for Spielberg!  Two vastly different movies in the same week.  He has done it before, in 1993, with Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.”)

You may wonder why it has taken that long for the two filmmakers to join forces.  You may also wonder why they have decided on this particular property, which, with all it charm, is quite old-fashioned, though the way it is told, the visual style, and other technical properties are highly inventive, representing state of the arts special effects.

Some background is in order: The “Tintin” graphic novels, written and drawn by Georges Remi using the pen name Hergé, have crossed over many diverse cultures and won multiple generations. A mega-pop cultural phenom, especially outside the U.S., the books have been translated into more than 80 languages, and have sold more than 350 million copies.

Spielberg had first reached out to Hergé in 1983, right after directing “E.T.”  Spielberg reported that he had found the Belgian artist deeply enthusiastic about placing his clever characters on the big screen, under his helm.  But sadly, Hergé passed away before the two men could even meet.  Later, Herge’s widow, Fanny Rodwell, fulfilled Herge’s wishes, granting the rights to Spielberg (apparently with no conditions attached).

Considering the episodic source material, the screenplay, penned by Brits Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, based on “The Adventures of Tintin” by Hergé, is more than serviceable.  It’s always clear, and occasionally quite clever and even witty.  The script combines into a singular plot three favorite Tintin books: “The Crab with the Golden Claws,” “The Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure.”  In my interview with Spielberg he acknowledged that some of the narrative’s wittiest lines were penned by Peter Jackson (uncredited), but he would not specify which ones.

The division of labor between the two filmmakers seems right: “Tintin” boasts the light, swift, warm, and elegant touches that have characterized most of Spielberg’s pictures, particularly those made for young audiences, such as “E.T”: The Extra-Terrestrial” and the first three chapters (but not the last) of the “Indiana Jones” series.

The timing for a film that is destined to serve as the first installment of a popular franchise is also right, now that the “Indiana Jones,” “The Pirates of the Carribean,” and “Shrek” seem to have exhausted their narrative (and commercial) potential, not to mention the end of the decade-long “Harry Potter” movie phenom.

After making two artistically disappointing movies–Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” (which was also a big cmmercia flop) and Spielberg’s fourth installment of the franchise, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdon of the Crystal Skull” (which made money, but was dismissed by most critics)“Tintin” represents a welcome return to form for both Jackson and Spielberg, resulting in an enjoyable fable-adventure that flaunts strong entertainment values.

Indeed, both an event movie and a movie event, “Tintin” is playful and humorous, taking full advantage of the 3D technology in an impressive manner, which was very much missing from the movies made by some of Spielberg’s most loyal protégés, such as Robert Zemeckis.

If “Tintin” has limitations as a “movie-movie,” they largely derive from the source material, which is old-fashioned (perhaps too innocuous and harmless by today’s standards), and holds special appeal for very young viewers, mostly children and boys.  (The comic strip is known for its lack of strong female characters).

The new movie, which is smoothly and assuredly directed by Spielberg, depicts the kinds of escapades that have enthralled generations of readers, representing a winning combination of fast-paced action, joyous sense of humor, steady flow of thrills, and likeable personalities in both the central and secondary roles.

The adventure unfolds as a globe-hopping quest, which includes light and serious mysteries, diverse criminals, and all kinds of secrets.  Based on the beloved characters created by Hergé, the story follows a young and eager reporter named Tintin (Jamie Bell, well cast, finally detached from his defining role, “Billy Elliott”) and his fiercely loyal dog Snowy as they discover a model ship carrying an explosive secret.

Drawn into a mystery that proves to be ancient, the energetic Tintin is contrasted with a smart heavy, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig, in a relaxed mode, taking a break from the James Bond series).  A menacing villain, Sakharine believes that Tintin has stolen a priceless treasure, which may be linked to the pirate Red Rackham.

Though both Bell and Craig play the leads, the adventure owes much of its charisma and appeal to the secondary characters.  Prime among them is the ever-resourceful dog Snowy (which can give Asta and other noted Hollywood dogs a run for their money), the salty, cantankerous Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and not one but two bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson (played by the famous British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost).

Globe trotting, Tintin travels the world, easily and cleverly outwitting his enemies in a breathless chase to find the Unicorn, a shipwreck that holds the key to vast fortune, one that might come with a curse.

Moving swiftly from the high seas to the sands of North African deserts, the plot is marked by twists and turns, which sweep Tintin and his entourage to all kinds of frills and thrills, with plenty of risks along the way.

Among the many highlights is a scene in which Haddock describes Red Rackham’s assault on Sir Francis’s ship, while a thrilling motorcycle chase takes place through the streets of Morocco.

Visually dazzling, “Tintin” benefits from state of the art effects, not just excellent use of the 3D technology that enhances the storytelling, but also polished production values in each and every department, courtesy of Spielberg’s reliable crew of cinematorapher, editor, and composer.

In its plot, characters and adventures, the narrative structure of “Tintin” may feel like a 1980s picture, but in terms of visual and other pleasures, the movie is quite inventive, and as such it does proud to mainstream cinema–“Tintin” is the kind of film that Hollywood still does better than any other national cinema.   (There have been non-American films of the comic strip, but none equals the level of technical sophistication of Jackson-Spielberg’s movie).

End Note

It’s probably a coincidence that two of the most enjoyable features this fall–the other being the French silent comedy “The Artist”–are old-fashioned and include a dog in a major role.

A longer, more detailed review will be published later today.