(Before I start my ramblings, allow me to recommend an excellent review of the Tintin film and a write-up of a press conference with Steven Spielberg for those who may be interested in seeing this movie.)
When I was a kid growing up in India, there were three types of comics I had access to.
The most easily accessible (and voluminous) were the Indian religious comics that everyone from the subcontinent has seen. Companies like Amar Chitra Katha cranked these out by the millions. The vast majority of them are ghastly in some way or another (or several), but they always surprise me with how well they hold together.
My parents worried about this being my primary reading material, but overall they were pleased that I was reading at all, so they left me to it. I spent hours with these comics and, at points in the last ten years, have gone to great lengths to obtain them (they now have a website–and bless them, they haven’t changed their logo). That’s a post for another day.
The other two types of comics I grew up on were Asterix and Tintin. I’m amazed now that I liked Asterix, because you really need to know at least a little bit about European culture and history (for example, to know what Gauls are and why they were in conflict with the Romans, or, for that matter, anything about druids). To say nothing of English, or the original French, to absorb the wordplay in the names, otherwise many of the gags don’t make sense. I can assure you they don’t work at all in Hindi. Maybe I just liked the pictures and slapstick humor (and who does that better than the French?).
But Tintin. He was universal. The boy detective (as I thought he was–turns out he was actually a journalist) with his little dog, galavanting around the world and having tremendous adventures. Anyone who’s read my work can see Tintin’s influence all over it, and a few people familiar with the series have pointed it out, to my delight.
Hergé wasn’t perfect, by an means. Some of his writings (most particularly the rightly criticized Tintin in the Congo, which celebrated brutal European colonialism in Africa and was full of racist tropes, for which Hergé was apparently later regretful) are too much a product of their time. A significant swath of that time took place during World War II–and Hergé was a soldier for part of it.
For me, though, this is more than tempered by the wanderlust that comes through on every page, and the enchanting depictions of exotic locales (for me, one of those was Tintin’s native Belgium, which looked like nothing familiar to me). I also loved the cars and the faithful recreations of detail from the time period, right down to the women’s shoes. I’ve no shame in admitting that Tintin is a source of visual reference for a story I’m working on that’s set in the late 30s, thanks to Hergé’s relentless accuracy.
And I do remember, as a child, being a bit amazed that a European artist took the time to draw pictures of his hero traveling to India. Looking at them now, I find many of Hergé’s portrayals of Indians (to say nothing of all the other non-Europeans in the Tintin books) troubling (yes, he did resort to the inevitable fakir in the marketplace), but still. There are human, believable characters of all races in the books. Most of all, it says a lot about the series and the sincerity behind it that it has been translated into so many languages.
Then I heard about this film. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson doing Tintin? SHUT UP. I was beside myself. I still get giddy when I tell people who don’t know anything about Tintin the stories of his various adventures and the fun, often silly characters that populate the series. It shouldn’t surprise me that Spielberg and Jackson love him as much as I do, but it is somehow gratifying nonetheless.
I was lucky enough to see an advance screening of the film, in 3d no less, which will be released to the public on the 23rd.
So I’ll get this out of the way: as a Tintin diehard (and I’ll dare anyone to challenge me on trivia and lore from the series!), I liked it. Throughout the film, I fell into the images and the voice acting was authentic enough that the characters seemed to be speaking naturally and as I would imagine them to. The CGI-motion capture aspect of it was very well handled, for the most part. Details like fabrics, depth of field, and light were especially exquisite, somehow true to the original though the comics were all in flat colors.
There were two things I had quibbles with: the enlarged heads (the people in the original comics don’t have heads that are so out of proportion to their bodies; Hergé was an artist who had an engineer’s eye for scale, anatomy, and perspective), and the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am chase scenes. These felt gratuitous. The pacing of the original comics was incredible and as finely tuned as any film noir, and so to sit through a 10-minute chase, full of elaborate visuals and eye-popping 3d, dropped me out of the Tintin experience, though every effort had been made to insert inside jokes into these sequences.
Who knows, perhaps this is what it takes to bring my childhood hero (I idolized Tintin to the point of trying to spike my hair up like his, to my mother’s chagrin) to the young people of today. Mercifully, the explosions were kept at a minimum, and there wasn’t any noticeably greater amount of violence than I remember from the comics.
Oh, and one other thing: Marlinspike Hall didn’t feel all that grand in the film, at least compared to how I remembered it from the comics.
As a Tintin fan, I did feel a bit confused at points, because elements from several of the comic book stories were used in the storyline of the film. Sometimes I thought I knew where they were going but then they’d veer off into territory that, as often as not, wasn’t in any original Tintin material. Yet it was clear that they’re trying to follow continuity at least to an extent, because a sequel (which will presumably be built around Red Rackham’s Treasure) seems inevitable.
(Red Rackham, incidentally, is the very first Tintin comic I read–it left me completely bewildered, not least because one needs to have read The Secret of the Unicorn beforehand in order to understand what’s going on. Next up was The Seven Crystal Balls, which scared me to death, because it featured a grinning, emaciated Inca mummy with large, heavy-looking bracelets, vengefully smashing crystal balls full of poison–an image that still haunts me. You can see why I loved these books.)
One thing that made me particularly happy, though it broke Tintin continuity a bit, was the inclusion of operatic diva Bianca Castafiore (the dreaded “Milanese Nightingale”). She was always one of my favorite characters in the books (right after Professor Calculus), and she felt the most true to what I remember imagining from the comics. The filmmakers, in a moment of brilliance, had her voiced by Renée Fleming, who hits a perfect high C loud enough to shatter glass at a pivotal moment, conveniently moving along a plot point. Clever. One senses Spielberg’s hand in that. She did not, however, sing the “Jewel Song” from Faust, the aria with which she tortured her fellow characters and shattered glass in the comics and which, funny enough, has been famously sung by Renée Fleming.
Anyway, thank you, Spielberg (and about 600 other people that must have worked on that film–hats off to Jamie Bell in particular though, if Tintin had a voice in my head it would be his). You brought a beloved childhood hero to life well enough that, for those 180 or so minutes, I was transported, and will certainly see it again. You’ve got me for Red Rackham as well.