Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Glad Venture with Tintin

Stealing from our busy professional lives a couple of hours in a rather buccaneer fashion (Red Rackham would have approved!), my good wife and I - ever the partners in crime - went to watch the newly released (in the US; the world - alas! - has watched it much before us) Spielberg movie, "The Adventures of Tintin".

I don't mind admitting that there was a certain amount of uncertainty, even trepidation, involved at first: would Spielberg do it justice? This is the movie adaptation of a much-beloved comic book series that we have grown up with. We are intensely familiar with the spread of delightful characters created by the Belgian comic book artist and writer, Georges Remi (or, more popularly, Hergé): Tintin, the young journalist, and Snowy, his adorable and intelligent canine companion; Captain Archibald Haddock, an old Sea-dog with a heart of gold and a vocabulary full of wonderfully made-up cusswords; Professor Cuthbert Calculus, the absent-minded and deaf-as-a-door-post but brilliant inventor; Thomson and Thompson, the duo of bumbling, articulation-challenged detectives, who nevertheless find themselves representing the law under the most interesting circumstances; Bianca Castafiore, the 'Milanese Nightingale', the Soprano whose voice can crack glass when it hits the highest notes; General Alcazar; the deliciously evil Rastapopoulus; and so on and on. The adventures were breathtaking in their imagination - oh, the places they went and people they met! - and the drawings had such motion, such flow - despite being bound in the two dimensions afforded by small box-panels - such cinematic quality, with long-shots, close-ups, masterful use of light and shadow. Would Spielberg (Director) and Peter Jackson (Producer) do it right?

The Adventures of Tintin
Low resolution image adapted from; original image © Paramount/Dreamworks

There was also the question of the animation technique. I am not a fan of the motion-capture animation, having been sorely disappointed by the 2004 release, The Polar Express, which popularized this technique; the computer-aided process could successfully animate a vast range of motions of the characters except the eyes, giving the on-screen characters a rather zombie-like countenance with expressionless, dead eyes. The technology must have been refined since then, but we weren't quite sure.

Well, I am happy to report that our trepidations were unfounded.

The animated credits at the inception were exquisitely done; visually pleasing, with intelligently placed graphics and moving images, and more than a passing nod to certain animated sequences made popular by the created-for-TV animated adaptations of the books, we thoroughly enjoyed it. The animation and effects in the main movie didn't disappoint either. Even with their animated feel, the characters came alive on screen; their interactions were fluid, with an unexpected élan. Depictions of nature and the action sequences were crafted adroitly and realistically; Hergé would have been proud.

So what about the main gripe against the movie that I have been hearing from my fellow Tintin-enthusiast Indian friends? The story... as it almost always is. This is what the Tintin Purists found most offensive and whine-worthy. The writing team, which includes the British Writer Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame), did not stick to the original storyline and chronological sequence of events described for these characters. They took major elements, story and visual, from no less than three Tintin books, and resynthesized the narrative into a cohesive plot that moves at a fast and smooth pace.

Low resolution image adapted from Wikipedia, here and here; depicted characters © author/publishers, as appropriate

Granted there were inaccuracies that jarred. The real story behind acquisition of the Marlinspike Hall, for example. Professor Calculus featured in the original storyline in a major way, but not in the movie; the meeting between Tintin and Captain Haddock also didn't quite occur as depicted in the movie; and the entire series of events surrounding the models of the 17th century ship Unicorn were imagined very differently by Hergé, from which the movie deviated significantly. The movie narrative, based primarily on The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, nevertheless incorporated random plotlines snatched from many of the other adventures.

However, Tintin Purists (me included) need to understand one thing. Spielberg's Tintin movie of 2011 is being presented primarily to an audience that has largely no previous exposure to the comic book and its characters, unlike the audience in India or various European countries. The US movie-goers may or may not take to the franchise, at all; consequently, there may or may not be any sequels to this production. To account for this unfortunate element of unpredictability, the writing team must have had to incorporate as many plot elements as they could, in order to make a story that is enjoyable even to the uninitiated.

Well, it worked. It was a GREAT effort. I must admit, Bianca Castafiore was as delightful as I have always imagined her, even though in this movie, she didn't sing, "My beauty past compare..." What was also fabulous was the inclusion of Easter-egg like inside jokes that only the seasoned Tintin aficionados would get. Right from the first scene, there were displays, on the sly, of the comic-book characters that we so love. Certain elements of the desert scene were so reminiscent of The Crab with the Golden Claws, and a later scene at the dock allowed a surreptitious glimpse of the peculiar brand of cigar as in the Cigars of the Pharaoh. There were several others: Can you find them all?

Needless to say, we loved the movie, and hope Spielberg would not stop just with one. After all, material is plentiful in Hergé's long list of creations!

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