Spielberg’s Hergé hommage
Stephen Spielberg’s recently released Tintin film has received generally favourable, if hardly effusive, reactions from critics. As a lifelong Hergé-ophile who does not generally enjoy Spielberg’s output, I expected to find it woefully inferior to the originals. But I saw it last night in 3D and was very pleasantly surprised.
Nothing could ever quite match up to the superlative original cartoons, with the combination of innovative technique, witty storylines and period charm, but Spielberg (who, let it be remembered, became Hergé’s ideal director after Hergé had seen the first Indiana Jones film) spared no expense or effort, and this is apparent right from the hypnotically beautiful opening animation sequence, with its shadowy fistfights, falls, leaps, crashes and explosions accompanied by a Sixties-reminiscent soundtrack.
Previous attempts to bring the Belgian boy-journalist to the big screen as a live action hero were not entirely successful – although Jean-Pierre Talbot is very watchable in 1961’s Golden Fleece and 1964’s Blue Oranges. Spielberg wanted to treat Tintin more respectfully, especially as he was using real Hergé stories (1943’s The Secret of the Unicorn and 1944’s Red Rackham’s Treasure) so he opted for movement capture animation using well known actors. Billy Elliott star Jamie Bell is the boy reporter, Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis plays Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig is the baddie Sakharine and the comic actor Simon Pegg is Thomson (or was it Thompson with a P?)
The result is generally very effective, and the backgrounds are startlingly detailed and so richly coloured that one could almost step into them – especially the Belgian street scenes, where you can distinguish individual cobbles and subtle changes in stucco tone from building to building, and the harbours where old-fashioned ships lie alongside lamplit quay walls below cranes running along rusty rails, and one can almost taste the tang of old fish, diesel and rust, and hear the cold slap and suck of the dirty dock water between the towering metal sides of the ships and the seaweed-slimy stone of the quay. The big set pieces are wholly spectacular, especially the frenetic chase after the parchments in the fictional Moroccan port of Bagghar which – although the incident does not happen in the two original books – is full of convincing Tintinesque colour and incident.
The characters are all more or less who and what they should be – Captain Haddock is rum-sodden and rumbustious, diminished descendant of a greater ancestor (Spielberg makes rather too much of Haddock’s feelings of inadequacy), Thomson and Thompson are as officious as they are incompetent, Snowy is loyal and as resourceful and attentive as one could reasonably expect from a fox-terrier. I would have liked more from the brilliant Bianca Castafiore (although strictly speaking she doesn’t belong in these stories at all) and was sorry not to see Cuthbert Calculus, who of course Tintin first encounters in Red Rackham’s Treasure. On the other hand, I would like to have seen less of Ivanovitch Sakharine, who in the film is turned from inoffensive antiquarian into a ruthless criminal and lineal descendant of the 17th century pirate Red Rackham, spoiling to revenge his ancestor’s defeat at the hands of Haddock’s ancestor.
As for Tintin – well, he is Tintin, brave, loyal, chivalrous, intelligent but without any apparent personality, family background, more moral exemplar than a living, breathing person. Even his age is unclear, although he is clearly of tender years – which begs the question how he has found the time to learn how to use radio-telegraphy, fire weapons, steer ships, speak numerous languages, become a police confidant, own a luxurious apartment and innumerable other accomplishments. (Spielberg departs acceptably and humorously from the original by having our red-tufted hero frantically leafing through a ‘how to fly’ manual when he and Haddock end up in a small plane.) And where does his money come from?
But that is the way he has always been, and it would have been a solecism to have invented something about his persona in an attempt to make him more appealing to an audience not necessarily familiar with the books – just as it would have been a solecism to have given him, say, a love interest. In the film, as in the originals, he remains a cipher, a sort of guardian or abstract avenging angel, an unspotted soul with his trousers tucked into his impeccable socks as if distancing himself from all contamination or compromise. He is a righter more than he is a writer, and that is all that is needed. We do not read (or watch) Tintin to learn about the possibilities of human psychology, but simply to laugh, and revel in a lost time and texture. Spielberg’s Hergé hommage is a good introduction to everyone’s favourite Belgian for those who have not yet been privileged to know him, and a worthy tribute that will be enjoyed by those who have already lived with him a long time.
Derek Turner, 31 October 2011