Friday, March 23, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

My acquaintance with Tintin was that of bourgeoisie. Born and raised in a muffasil town, I had but no access to American comic books, let alone comic books imported from Europe. Even ‘Calvin’ and ‘Peanuts’ came to my life much later. I knew who Tintin was much before I had read any of his adventures. Simply, he was inaccessible. Hergé’s comic books, originally created in French, and translated into English, were not available in my neighbourhood bookstores, and when I found them in the stores, later, they were mighty expensive, at least Rs 800, for one copy. There’s a reason. Unlike a regular comic book, which runs of 25-30 pages of panels, a single issue of Hergé’s Tintin adventure runs more than 100 pages. Every Tintin book is like a so called graphic novel, before graphic novels were in vogue. So, the price is justified; but I couldn’t still afford it. In short, I hadn’t had the chance to read Tintin till recently when a friend of mine gave me the pdf copies of half of the Tintin collection.

So, I read them, and when the new Spielberg picture came out last year, like all loyal fans, I too had misgivings. How are they going to adapt Tintin to big screen? How would Tintin look like? And, why the ‘Secret of the Unicorn’ episode? This is the 11th book in the series, and strangely, it is one of the few Tintin stories, where the boy hero doesn’t go on a whirlwind tour of the world. Then I saw the film and all my doubts were put to rest. The film is a swell adventure and you don’t need to read the original and know anything about Tintin to appreciate the movie, not that there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of Tintin.

He is a comic book character created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907–1983), who wrote under the pen name of Hergé. The series features standalone adventures of Tintin, a reporter with the Belgian children’s newspaper ‘Le Petit Vingtième’, and his adventures were first published in the said newspaper, starting 1929, before they became a worldwide sensation. There’s a pattern to the Tintin stories, though it may not be the case always. Each Tintin book sees the boy reporter in an adventure in a different country; this is one of the joys of reading a Tintin book, to observe how Hergé brings forth the local colour, the people, their costume, their language, their ritual, and in case of Captain Haddock, their drinks. In his very first adventure, Tintin went to the then USSR, next Congo, next American, next Egypt and so on. These descriptions of local colour is not just anthropological curiosity, but also a satire. And now, reading those stories today, it’s a different experience altogether. Something back, when the Tintin comics were reissued, the second book, ‘Tintin in the Congo’ was severely criticized for being racist. This is not a right criticism. One has to understand that the story was conceived in 1930, and Hergé was of course influenced by colonial stereotypes.

In all his adventures, Tintin is companies by his faithful poodle ‘Snowy’, who, of course, has a mind of his own, and Hergé often gives him his own little adventures. Tintin is also accompanied by Captain Haddock, a retired seaman, and often, to their dismay, they are joined by a pair of bumbling policemen, Thompson and Thomson; with ‘P’ and without ‘P’, a veritable Tweedledum and Tweedledee subplot from Alice’s wonderland. There is also a mad scientist in the mix.

Coming back to the Spielberg film, as we have come to expect, it’s not the faithful rendition of Hergé’s work. Yet, the film is the best possible solution that a cinematic version of Tintin could achieve. The Tintin here, voiced by Jamie Bell, is much more detailed than the ‘clear line’ drawing technique that Hergé employed. Yet, Spielberg makes this Tintin believable. One reason being, he is surrounded in the film by other well etched characters, most importantly, Captain Haddock, voiced by Andy Serkis, the man of thousand digital faces, as Spielberg introduced him at the Golden Globe awards this year, and the villain of the piece, voiced by Daniel Craig. In fact, it’s Captain Haddock who steals the show with his antics, his drunkenness and his innovative swear words, such as ‘thundering typhoons, and ‘blistering barnacles’, all of which come directly from Hergé.

Since the original unicorn story does not get anywhere, and since there was a sequel to the story, a rare case in a Tintin adventure, titled, ‘Red Reckham’s Treasures’, the film combines both the books together into an adventure, which suspiciously looks like that it was inspired by the Indiana Jones films. In doing so, Spielberg and his screen writers take several cinematic liberties, which works well in the context of the film. In the book, Tintin knows Captain Haddock from before. In the film, he’s introduced to Tintin, and in turn to the audience. Again, the villain is changed. The Bird brothers of the original is replaced with a more sinister one. These are minor skirmishes and it doesn’t hamper the film’s success.

The Unicorn is a 17th century ship which sailed in the Caribbean, fighting pirates. The adventure starts when Tintin buys a replica of the ship from the flea market. But, there’s someone else who wants the ship badly and Tintin wonders why. As he finds out, he’s abducted to a ship and we are set for a ride, involving pirates and treasures and a lot of chase.

The 3D animation is top-notch, and there are sequences of pure thrill. The best part film, as American critic Roger Ebert mentions is how the film treats Snowy. The little dog becomes a full-fledged charterer, and it’s a fun to watch him.

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