In January 1929, Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle was entering its 34th year of publication, as their photographic reporter George Remi was writing his first comic strip. The paper was eventually shut down during World War II, and Remi went on to open his own studio in 1950. Remi is better known as Hergé, and the comic that made him famous was none other than The Adventures of Tintin.
In the summer of 1981, Steven Spielberg had just come out with Raiders of the Lost Ark. After a review compared Spielberg’s film to a certain European comic he’d never heard of, he decided to look into it. His assistant came back with 5 different Tintin stories, none of which were in English, but it didn’t matter. Spielberg was smitten with Hergé’s work, and while shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in London a few years later, he decided to pay Hergé a visit in Belgium. Sadly, Hergé had passed away earlier that same week.
Ordinarily, the story would’ve ended there, and these two great artists would’ve seldom been mentioned in the same sentence. But the story didn’t end there. Hergé’s widow was touched by Spielberg’s interest in her late husband’s work, and eventually, a deal was struck for Spielberg to make a film based on the series. This was in 1984. After a tumultuous back-and-forth between various studios, and Spielberg’s own back-and-forth between wanting to do the film in either animation or live-action, it wasn’t until twenty years later, after the advent of WETA Digital (founded by fellow Tintin fan Peter Jackson), that he settled on the medium of motion capture. Finally, after decades in production hell, the film was released in December 2011, more than 80 years after the character’s first appearance. The first image to appear on screen? Hergé himself, sketching his beloved Tintin.
The walls behind Tintin are adorned with caricatures. Sketches of various characters whom have all appeared throuhgout the series’ history, and unlike a mere cameo apperance, this feels like a direct homage to Hergé himself. The sketch he makes (pictured above) is exactly what Tintin looks like in the comics, and all the other characters in the film look like similar caricatures brought to life. Tintin is the only main character who has any sort of realistic features (he’s almost uncanny), but this character meant to represent Hergé is the only other person in the film who looks discernably realistic. He gazes upon Tintin and distorts his features, creating something of a buffer between himself and reality. It’s as if he’s staring into a mirror, looking at all the adventures he wishes he could’ve had if he weren’t under the control of a fascist regime, as he softens the blow of the image reflected back to him.
Tintin is, after all, a photographic reporter just like Hergé
Spielberg and Hergé are cut from the same cloth, and their penchants for exotic adventure make them the perfect pairing for an adaptation such as this. They even occupy similar headscapes in the minds of children in different parts of the world. Most of you reading this would’ve likely grown up with Spielberg’s films. I grew up with Hergé’s Tintin (it was the first commic series I ever read!) and barring the United States, they’ve achieved monumental global success, having been translated into over 70 languages, and selling a total of 200 million copies as of 2007.
The original comic strips are from a strange period in history. They first appeared in a somewhat anti-semetic newspaper, before going on to be published by Le Soir, a paper run by actual Nazis. To say that they have a certain backwardness about them wouldn’t be much of a stretch. They were my first exposure to comicbook storytelling, but they were also my first exposure to blackface! Then again, even Spielberg’s adventure stories have certain elements that would be distasteful today, such as the Indiana Jones series’ depcitions of South and East Asians. That being said, it would be unfair to hold those works to today’s standards, and that’s not something I’m remotely interested in doing. Western adventure stories have always had a bit of a fascination with the ‘exotic’ and The Adventures of Tintin is no exception, however a key difference between the film and its source material (not to mention Spielberg’s own adventure films) is that it treats this exoticism with a more modern sensibility.
Bagghar is not a real Morroccan port. It was invented in one of Hergé’s earlier Tintin comics, The Crab with the Golden Claws, one of several stories that the film is based on. Most of the action takes place in Bagghar, but rather than the paitning the local characters with Hergé’s original broad brushes, it instead focuses on the exoticism of the location – not in the sense that it’s a bizarre and mystical land, but that it’s a vibrant and vivacious playground, the kind that’s a perfect home for what is perhaps one of Spielberg’s greatest action scenes.
It’s also probably Spielberg’s best long take, and while that’s a claim that one could easily dismiss since it was mostly done on computers, it remains a rivetting piece of cinema, owing to how expertly it edits itself despite being editless. The beats are heavily emphasized at each turn, as the focus shifts seamlessly from bird to dog to scroll, and between a handful of different important characters, even allowing moments where the action is driven not by the MacGuffin blowing in the wind, but by the decisions of those chasing it. It does things that a live action films might not, and thing that other directors wouldn’t even dream of, but in effect, it also justifies the use of the made-up location. While its architecture is drawn from actual sources, its geography isn’t tethered to any known physical place, which allows a river to run alongside a market, as they both converge at a well, before the winding path eventually hits a cliff, which also happens to be on the shore. None of this is accidental, as it allows all the various moving elements of the story to diverge and converge as and when the scene deems it necessary. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be, and it features some of the most visually exciting action this side of the 21st century.
More so than just the boisterous set pieces, The Adventures of Tintin finds it footing in the simplicity of its characters. Like Spielberg, Tintin is a storyteller. The reason he gets himself roped up in each adventure is so that he has a good story to tell by the end of it. He has a wide-eyed fascination with events and stories that are much bigger than himself. Not only is he curious, but he has a sort of reverence for all things adventure.
The film treats its plot with a similar reverence. While Tintin is smart and accomplished (the newspaper clippings on his wall hint at past adventures from the comics), he isn’t some all-knowing detective whose presence is central to the story. He’s the kid who meddles in the villains pre-exisitng plan, and joins the film’s real hero, Archibald Haddock, midway through his journey. He gets knocked out for a brief period, and even his dog is ahead of him at one point. Everyone and everything around him has a rich and deep history, one that he can do no more than bear witness to. When Haddock tells the tale of his ancestor, he re-enacts his most pivotal battle for the audience, and for Tintin. To him, watching all this unfold is enough. Little is known about Tintin’s own history, because his history doesn’t matter. His history is our history. He’s the kid who wants to know more about pirates and ghosts and mummies and aliens!
Once the great adventure has been had, and the mystery of the Unicorn solved, Tintin and Haddock cast aside Red Rackham’s treasure, paying the material rewards no mind. For them, the real treasures are the hat that the coins were kept in, and the new scroll that accompanied them. Haddock puts on the hat, having finally pulled himself out of his drunken stupor. He’s finally worthy of his family’s name. As for Tintin? Like Hergé inking a final page before plotting a new story, or Spielberg wrapping one project before starting the next, his reward is simply the promise of another adventure.