The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

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The Adventures of Tintin is essentially Indiana Jones 5.  The story follows a young boy, Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) who goes on a wild mission to track down a miniature replica of a 17th century ship called The Unicorn.  This replica, one of three, contains clues to the location of Sir Francis Haddock’s sunken treasure.

The story feels very familiar, and it’s full of adventure, mysteries, humor, unlikely friendships and inconsequential violence, just like an Indiana Jones film.  Tintin is a young journalist who seems to live alone with his dog, Snowy.  In his home office he proudly displays newspaper headlines on the wall that document his achievements.  He’s a kid who is drawn to adventure, but funny enough, the adventure finds him this time.  A lot of films follow the structure of this one.  By that I mean that the main character is living his normal life, and he’s yanked into an adventure by a moment of coincidence or perfect timing.  In this case, Tintin recognizes the replica boat of The Unicorn at a flea market so he buys it.  Almost immediately he is approached by two men who want to buy the boat from him.  The first is an American, and the second is Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig).  Tintin turns them both down, despite the American’s insistence that this ship carries with it much danger.  Also, Sakharine is clearly the villain.  He looks like a pirate already.

Later the boat is stolen from Tintin’s home.  Snowy helps him locate a scroll that fell from the boat when it was damaged.  The scroll is a clue of some kind.  Soon after, Tintin is kidnapped by Sakharine’s men, and this kicks off Act 2.

Tintin wakes up onboard Sakharine’s ship, but we quickly learn that the true captain of the ship, Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis) is a drunk who’s been imprisoned after Sakharine’s mutiny to gain control of the vessel.  Tintin escapes his own prison and stumbles upon Haddock.  Together, along with Snowy, they are able to escape the ship in a small lifeboat.  Tintin learns that Haddock knows of The Unicorn because that ships captain was an ancestor of his, Sir Francis Haddock.  It’s clear to Tintin that Haddock is important in this mission, and we see Sakharine demand that his crew make sure Haddock isn’t killed.

Haddock’s role in the adventure is that a Haddock is needed to find the treasure, which the scrolls hidden in three miniatures of The Unicorn lead to.  So now Haddock and Tintin and Snowy are adrift in the middle of the sea.  Sakharine sends a plane to find them, and Tintin manages to shoot it down.  They fly the plane through a storm, aiming to land at the port of Bagghar, knowing it to be the location of the third miniature Unicorn and the location to which Sakharine is headed.

The plane crashes in the desert, and this is when we reach the midpoint of the story as Haddock begins to remember the story of his ancestor, Sir Francis.  This is the critical information which Sakharine, and now Tintin, have been waiting for.  The story is that Sakharine’s own ancestor, Red Rackham (a pirate) tried to steal Sir Francis’ ship, The Unicorn, and the treasure onboard.  Rather than let his ship fall into the wrong hands, Sir Francis sets it ablaze, letting the ship, the treasure and Red Rackham sink to the bottom.  Red Rackham insists that they will meet in another lifetime.

In the second half of Act 2, after this reveal, our heroes collide with Sakharine in Bagghar where Sakharine has brought an opera singer to perform.  Her singing voice is enough to shatter the bullet-proof glass that protects the third Unicorn miniature.  An incredibly long and impressively choreographed chase sequence follows that involves Tintin, Haddock, Sakharine, Snowy and a hawk.  In the end, however, Sakharine gets away with the Unicorn and therefore all three clues to the hidden treasure.

This is the “all is lost moment” of a screenplay.  It occurs at the end of Act 2 when, as you might guess, all is lost.  Not only do Haddock and Tintin not have the treasure, but Tintin, for the first time, seems pessimistic.  Haddock points this out, telling him he used to be an optimist.  Then Haddock gives Tintin a spiel about never giving up, and Tintin reveals that they can track down Haddock’s location by opening up their radio frequency and listening to their conversation.

After they reach Sakharine, there is a final showdown between Sakharine and Haddock that mimics the sword fight between Red Rackham and Sir Francis.  Our heroes win, and they’re able to track down the treasure.  The ultimate discovery is not the literal treasure, however, but the promise of more adventure when Tintin finds another clue.

So this movie, like Indiana Jones suggests that there is always another adventure out there. The story is pretty simple, and when I think about everything that happens it doesn’t seem like it would fill up an almost two hour movie.  I think movies like this and other chase-sequence heavy movies are able to fill a lot of time with those action set pieces.  All you need is a simple story, a macguffin and characters who have fun even in the face of the often dire circumstances.  I’m not sure what else to add about the story other than it’s probably a good film to analyze if you want to look at screenplay structure.  The “call to action” which often thrusts ordinary characters into extraordinary circumstances (Harry PotterThe Matrix, Frodo in The Lord of the Rings) is very much apparent here.  This moment is in a bunch of adventure stories because it’s an easy way to set up the story.  All you need is a simple justification for the protagonist’s role in the story.  In this case, Tintin merely stumbles upon the item of great interest, and that’s what forces him into the story.  He’s kidnapped and there you go.  In movies like Harry Potter or The Matrix, the protagonist is told that he is special and was always going to be a part of this world at some point.

I think the more interesting character arc in this movie was that of Captain Haddock.  He’s the person who is involved in the journey because he’s necessary to the journey, more like Harry Potter and Neo than Tintin.  Haddock goes from an aimless drunk to a man with purpose who connects with his own family history.  He experiences real growth.  Tintin is just a vessel or a lens through which we can watch the story.  Tintin never changes.  He’s the same old Tintin that we’ve always known (even though I knew nothing about him before this film).

Tintin is an adventure-seeking optimistic journalist at the beginning of the story and again at the end.  You know, I think the only thing that changes for Tintin is that he has a new friend in Haddock.  And we don’t know that Tintin has any friends when the story starts.  Granted, the action kicks off pretty early so we don’t get much of a chance to see Tintin’s day to day life, so who knows if he has any friends.  But to make his character more interesting, I’m going to choose to believe that he was a lonely guy who gave his dog human-like traits to curb his loneliness and give him someone to interact with.  The policemen and other citizens in the story imply that Tintin is famous in their town, so maybe (and this is absolutely not the case with this animated children’s film) the story is a commentary on the nature of celebrity.  Tintin is often off on the wild adventures, probably rarely ever at home, just like a famous celebrity who is on location all over the world shooting a movie and never home.  Tintin creates a friend in his dog, and he becomes dependent on the dog which doesn’t contribute to the friendship as much as he imagines (all of Snowy’s remarkable characteristics are simply hallucinated by Tintin).  This could reflect a celebrity’s relationship with the people who idolize them.  Sure it helps sustain them on some level for a little while, but eventually it wears off because it’s not real.

So, again I know this is absolutely not the case, but if it was, it would make Haddock’s friendship with Tintin that much more meaningful and demonstrate real growth within Tintin.  Maybe at the end of the movie Tintin and Haddock could’ve shaken hands to seal their friendship, and then Snowy tells Tintin, “Congratulations buddy, you have finally made a real friend so you no longer need to imagine me!” and then he disappears forever.

Okay, so that’s not in the story, and that means that Haddock is the one who experiences the most important growth.  After all, the final showdown which often involves the protagonist instead involves Haddock.  This is his story.  It’s deeply ingrained in his own family.  Tintin is a more relatable character for us to follow into this world because he’s not a drunk, he’s more innocent and undefined making it easier for us to project ourselves onto him, and he’s got a cute little dog.

I wish more animated films were more daring.  Animated films are pretty amazing.  Think of almost any Pixar film, they’re fantastic for the most part.  But the stories are often fairly simple with characters that represent heteronormative culture more often than anyone on the edge of mainstream society.  I’d like to see Tintin follow Haddock, a plump drunk who’s lost almost everything in his life.  That would be bold, I think.  Maybe I’m forgetting some example of animated films doing this, or maybe I just haven’t seen the right ones.  But imagine a Pixar version of the Ryan Gosling movie Half Nelson (2006) or a Pixar version of Do The Right Thing (1989).  Whoa, what about an animated version of Amistad?  Okay, yeah that’s a terrible idea for many reasons.  Just have an animated film with a character who we have to work to like.  I have a pretty ordinary social life, and I don’t always like the people I meet, and they don’t always like me.  Not everyone is outgoing and approachable upon a first encounter.  So just have a film with a character we need to learn to get along with, maybe like Lee in Manchester by The Sea.  That might make the journey more engaging if by the end we find ourselves right there with them, feeling everything they’re feeling.

But these are animated films, and that’s not what they’re for.  Animation allows certain visual and technical perspectives that are difficult to show in reality.  Like the longest continuous shot in this film, with the camera swerving in and out, here and there among all the characters as they chase down the scrolls.  That’s something that cannot be done with real people in real locations, and that was pretty cool to see.

There’s also something pleasing about a film with a neat script and no loose ends.  It’s like a really cool 3d drawing, with every line adding up to something and showing how different parts of the picture connect.  You can stick your head in and see that it’s all right there, there are no tricks, and it’s just a neat cube.  There aren’t any real lasting impacts beyond a viewing of this film other than “that was cool, well done.”  Or maybe there’s some takeaway about the human condition that went right over my head.

 

 

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