TINTIN AT THE MOVIES

TINTIN AND THE MYSTERY OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE (1961)
TINTIN AND THE BLUE ORANGES (1964)
BFI DVD

As a young boy growing up in the West of Scotland, I used to read the Hergé comic books about the boy reporter Tintin and his globe-trotting adventures with his faithful dog Snowy and friends Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus.  There was also an animated TV series based on the books that used to be on in the mornings on school holidays.  But it wasn’t until I visited Belgium, and Brussels, the home of Hergé, Tintin merchandise and the brilliant Musée Hergé that  I realised there was more to it than just the charming tales I remembered from childhood.  I came home and got the animated series on DVD, started reading the adventures again from the beginning, and even tracked down critical writing (Tom McCarthey’s excellent Tintin and the Secret of Literature). 

In Belgium (and France), comic strips are regarded as the ninth art form and have a history stretching back to the 19th century, long before Marvel and DC Comics arrived.  Hergé was famed for his innovative style known as ligne-claire, which reduces images to simple clear lines. The image of Tintin can be reduced to a circle with two dots for eyes, a nose and the famous quiff of hair, which has become one of the most recognised silhouettes in the world.

From the very beginning of the stories, Tintin has been linked to the cinema, when he wanders onto a Hollywood film set in the third adventure in the series Tintin in America to rescue a damsel he believes to be in distress.  But it wasn’t until the BFI released these two films in 2010: Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece  (Tintin et le Mystère de la Toison d’Or, 1961) and Tintin and the Blue Oranges (Tintin et les Oranges Bleues, 1964), that I discovered Tintin had been brought to life on the big screen before the much anticipated Spielberg movie due next year.

Unlike the forthcoming Spielberg and Peter Jackson films, neither of these European productions are based on original Hergé adventures, although he was present for some filming and took great interest in seeing his creation taking on cinematic form (including giving his blessing to, and becoming friends with Jean-Pierre Talbot, the unknown gym teacher cast to play Tintin).  And equally unlike Spielberg and Jackson the film-makers did not have the massive budget and present day technology that can be used today to create the world of Tintin.  Looking back on these films now though, this may in fact have been a massive bonus, because what they lack in cutting edge digital effects, they more than make up for in an easy-going charm, ingenuity and, much like the boy reporter, making the best of their situation.

The Mystery of the Golden Fleece is the superior of the two.  the plot resolves around Captain Haddock (Georges Wilson) being left a ship by an old friend, which turns out to be an old piece of junk, but they suspect may be worth more once rivals start to bid increasingly large sums of money for the seemingly wrecked vessel.  Much of the charm and simplicity of the original adventures survives.  As Tintin,  Jean-Pierre Talbot, in his first role, is physically a perfect match, and as a former gym teacher, can match the physicality required by the role of the boy reporter.  Wilson as Haddock provides requisite laughs, as does Georges Loriot as the hapless and deaf Professor Calculus.  Real life twins (listed as ‘Icognito’ in the end credits) play the bungling Thom(p)son’s perfectly.  The sense of location and globe-trotting (from Belgium to Turkey to Greece and back again) are typical of the Tintin adventures, although in the books he never visited these locations, and the nasty villains and sense of peril and excitement are equally lifted rather well from the pages of Hergé. A catchy theme tune and some well observed humour helps make it a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Tintin and the Blue Oranges, three years later is less successful.  Again it is based on an original story, this time centering on Professor Calculus’ attempts to create a fruit which can be grown in the desert.  For an unknown reason (probably money if I was to hazard a guess) the entire cast of characters, with the exception of Talbot as Tintin, are replaced, and in every case the results are weaker performances, though not bad.  Jean Bouise takes over as Haddock and over does the tantrums and blustering unlike the way  Wilson managed to create a balance.  The Thom(p)son’s are now played by Franky Francois and Andre Marie, and have less material to work with, as does the similarly changed Calculus (now portrayed by Felix Fernandez).  But all give their best and the sense of enjoyment carries the performances through. The budget seems to have been even more restrictive, but there still remains the sense of location and adventure, even if the peril seems less threatening this time round.   The writing is less witty, relying more on the blustering Haddock, deaf Calculus and hapless Thom(p)son’s for slapstick laughs this time around. Talbot is again impressive as Tintin, and one wonders how he would have fared given a longer run and better production values around him.  But, this lack of resources is what gives this film, and its predecessor, such a lovable charm that fits in perfectly for those of us with childhood memories of pouring over Herge’s original drawings.

In the future, with the new blockbuster films on the horizon, it remains to be seen what lies ahead of our intrepid reporter.  Since Hergé’s death in the early 1980’s, his express wish that no new Tintin adventures be created by anyone else has been strictly observed, and one can only hope this continues in the face of the film corporations about to cash in on global ticket sales and merchandising rights.  Towards the end of his life, Hergé famously suggested the only film-maker who could do his creation justice on the big screen was a young American named Steven Spielberg, who at the time had made the family adventure hits Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Whether the same man, on the back of such disappointments as A.I. (2001), The Terminal (2004) and War of the Worlds (2005), in amongst more sober and adult fare like Munich (2005), can rediscover the family friendly sense of adventure and innocence required remains to be seen.   Certainly, with the mass of effects and digital 3D resources being used, the new films may indeed lack the whole sense of charm and wonder at the real world that endeared the original books to so many readers.  And that is something both these European films from the ’60’s succeed in capturing in spades.

Film Ratings:
Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece – 4 out of 5
Tintin and the Blue Oranges – 3 out of 5

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