It’s probably worth starting this review of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn by gently ushering a couple of elephants out of the room. The first is the title, which is ridiculously overlong. For the sake of simplicity, from here on in, we’ll simply be calling it ‘Tintin’. The second, much larger elephant is the look of the film.

Motion capture is second only to 3D as a point of contention among audiences. Quite understandably so. All too often, reasonably good films have been hampered by characters who move in an odd fashion, and have a soulless, dead-eyed look. Getting expression out of animated characters is a difficult enough thing to achieve, and the almost religious adherence of proponents of the technique like Robert Zemeckis, to animation based exactly on the actors’ performances rather than a collaboration between actor and animator, often makes this impossible. This is also not helped by the fact that the filmmakers almost always seem to plump for character designs that end up squarely in the middle of the Uncanny Valley.

Tintin is something of an exception to this. While the textures used on the characters are as close to real life as a modern computer will allow, the designs deftly skirt the edges of the precipice, taking their cues from Herge’s artwork rather than the actors portraying them. There is the odd moment when a hand or part of a face looks as if it’s been photographed rather than drawn, but rarely does it become unnerving. In contrast to this, the animation team appear to have focused much of their effort on getting everything else to look ‘real’, and with great success. The sets, props and costumes all look incredible, and it’s surprisingly easy to forget that this isn’t a live action film.

With these pachyderms pushed aside for the moment, we’re free to consider the movie in more general terms.  The story is well thought out, and feels like a Tintin adventure should – clever and fun – taking cues from the books, without being slavishly faithful. A conflation of several published stories, it none the less seems like a complete work, without unnecessary threads added for fan service. Indeed, where the film adds characters who wouldn’t otherwise appear, it does so in a way that is entirely consistent with its own logic, and uses them in a fashion that advances the story.

Tonally the 40s setting, the globe-trotting adventure and the intelligent, everyman lead – equally at home with brains, fists or guns gives the film a similar feel to Indiana Jones. Not surprising really, given that Spielberg himself once compared the two characters. This could have gone badly, the last time Spielberg entered this territory we ended up with Shia Le Tarzan, and Harrison Ford in a fridge. Worse, it could have simply been overly self-referential or even self-parody*. Fortunately Tintin is much more in the spirit of the first three films rather than the last, packed with intrigue and excitement rather than loaded down by its own mythology.

The beauty of this is that we get to see Spielberg directing the sort of fun action that he hasn’t done well since the late nineties, and it’s glorious. It’s also the point where our attention is once more on That Elephant. By using motion capture Spielberg is free to create action sequences that he never could in real life. The showpiece chase through a Moroccan city involves a hotel being carried through the streets on a tank, motorbike sidecars crashing through buildings and torrents of water turning whole streets into rivers. The sheer logistics of this, let alone the cost, would make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible to achieve in a live action film. Certainly some of the shots used simply can’t be done outside of animation.

While overblown, effects dependent chases don’t always work in live action films, with Tintin it was the highlight. Because everything is created in a computer there’s no issue with integrating animation and photography, and because everything does look slightly unreal, we can accept the impossible, whether that is a camera move, or a partial suspension of gravity.

Unfortunately while motion capture and near-photo-real animation allow for Tintin’s greatest triumph, it is also the film’s biggest flaw. While the chase, as well as the film in general, works well from a technical standpoint, it’s also somewhat sterile. There’s every reason for us to be emotionally connected with the characters, and rooting for them through their adventure, but the reality is that we’re not. Ordinarily this could be blamed on script, direction or acting, but everything here seems fine. If anything, it’s actually much better than fine. The problem is that the characters simply don’t connect. They’re far from the eerie mannequins we saw in films like Final Fantasy and Beowulf, but they still don’t give enough subtle cues for us to empathise with them as we would with a human actor, and they’re not sufficiently broad and cartoonish for us to forgive this.

Consequently, Tintin feels very mechanical. It’s not dull or boring, and it’s certainly worth a watch, but it’s nowhere near as good a film as it should have been. It isn’t even the sum of its very well made parts. It almost certainly is, however, the best film it could be.


*Yes, I appreciate the last Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was pretty much self-parody anyway, but  humour me.