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The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn - Review * 13 November 2011

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a successful, loving adaptation of Herge's classic original graphic albums using the best technology modern filmmaking can provide. It is also a welcome return in blistering form to the adventure genre from one Steven Spielberg.

Firstly, a review of this film wouldn't be appearing here if it wasn't for the presence of Steven Moffat on the writing credits. While it is impossible to surmise exactly how much of the scripting and dialogue were composed by him before the landing of the head writer gig on Doctor Who, and the subsequent passing of the torch to Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, there is a sense of his fingers being all over the screenplay. The script deftly weaves the narrative punch of 'The Secret of the Unicorn', the first appearance of Captain Haddock and some of the action sequences from 'The Crab with the Golden Claws', and the denouement of 'Red Rackman's Treasure' into a seamless whole. Coupled with multiple asides, character appearances, and in-jokes from other stories - including a wonderful 'cameo' at the start that we would be remiss to spoil - this is a hugely loyal adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin, respectfully using Herge's original elements yet bravely adding in expansions and action bursts when required. As a result, there is a distinct sense of the film being a distant cousin to Sherlock, in the way it references and adapts the original work of another author while also embellishing it.

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There is an evident amount of skill required in the writing of Tintin himself. Staying incredibly true to the source, Tintin is arguably one of fiction's rare protagonists who is a blank slate, acting as a cipher for the audience to project themselves onto. It would be churlish to suggest the character is bland, but he is oddly ageless and earnest, and totally lacking in any form of back story. Jamie Bell, stepping into the mocap suit for the character, gives him the required level of neutrality across the board through a moderated English accent, but is able to give the character the sudden bursts of action the role requires. Its possibly a thankless task, but Bell carries off the part with aplomb.

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Of course, what makes Tintin hugely memorable is his colourful supporting cast. Most notable is of course Andy Serkis, the undisputed king of motion capture, as Captain Haddock. The most human character in the film, Haddock has been expanded slightly from the original source, gifted a tragic edge that is linked to the comedic element of his rampant alcoholism. While played purely for laughs by Herge, here it is reconditioned to allow Haddock to reflect one of the themes that Spielberg returns to time and time again in his work, which can be broadly summed up as that of the absent father and a sense of lost masculinity. While Haddock has 'ancestor issues' rather than 'daddy issues', he clearly fits neatly into the Spielbergian mould more than Tintin does, mainly through Serkis' astonishing expressionistic acting and performance.

Also giving superb work here is Daniel Craig, a long way from 007. His take on Ivanovich Sakharine is hugely expanded from the original source, here made explicitly villainous and given a personal connection to Captain Haddock. What remains remarkable in this case is the clearness of Craig's performance - where Bell and especially Serkis manage to completely disappear beneath the pixels, Craig is the one who recognisably flashes through the software. As Thompson and Thomson, the bumbling yet useful detectives from Scotland Yard, [another Sherlock link? We couldn't comment] Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are somehow indistinguishable, despite their obvious differences in reality. Both serve as the strongest comic relief in the film, subject to pratfalls and general idiocy in complete keeping with the source. And it would be remiss to not mention Snowy. Ultimately the reason for the entire film being computer generated rather than live action, he is by far the bravest and most proactive character in the entire film. Animated by the team at WETA, rather than even attempting to motion capture a real Fox Terrier, Snowy thankfully lacks a voice as he does in the comic, but all his behaviour and fearless action is perfect. The comedic sight of him dragging a camel femur through the desert sands, lifted straight from The Crab with the Golden Claws, is a highpoint.

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So ultimately in terms of the adaptation of the source material, this is a faithful and true piece of work. What minor departures there are in the film are due to the resurgence of Steven Spielberg as an out and out action director. He arguably hasn't produced a film this simply such out and out fun since Jurassic Park. A flashback pirate sequence, while present in Herge, is here expanded to titanic heights. Possibly completely annihilating the cumulative action sequences of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, it is merely a warm-up to the film's showstopper - a motorcycle chase through a stepped Moroccan township that initially feels very Indiana Jones. But then you realise the shot has not cut away, that there is no break in the action, and it just relentlessly plows onwards through numerous thrilling beats and comic asides. Thanks to the limitless possibilities of the technology at his disposal, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn gives us a Steven Spielberg film that is completely unchained. And its notable that while the action on screen is some of the most complex ever devised, it is always remarkably clear and easy to follow, something that should never be underestimated in modern cinema.

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In closing, whether you are a long-time Tintin fan or have never heard of him before, this is a fantastic film. Its designed as a pure engine to entertain, regardless of prior knowledge. From the faithfulness of the adaptation by the writers, to Spielberg's trademark direction - the muscular atmospherics and stillness of the setting, to the blistering action sequences - and the wonderful performances by the entire cast, not to mention the superb 3D and animation, this is by far the most fun we've had in a cinema this year. Easily one of the best films of the year, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn comes with our highest recommendation.

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