November 13, 2011


If you're reading this blog, chances are good you know about the upcoming Tintin movie.1 There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this movie, including its impressive credits list: director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), writers Steven Moffat (Dr. Who, Sherlock) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and many worthy actors including Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Andy Serkis. In other words, there are some very competent people involved with this project and it should prove to be a really fun, really pretty adventure.

I think there are also a lot of reasons to be skeptical or even angry about this movie as well. The first is the why-did-they-do-that-to-my-childhood that I think many people feel about this kind of project. If I remember correctly, my older brother did not want to see the "enhanced" version of the first Star Wars movie in particular because it would feel like a pollution (my word choice) of this very significant part of his childhood. I think that's a very valid point and a worthwhile consideration when choosing which experiences to participate in. I don't think it's exactly the same situation with Tintin, but it's certainly similar.

The second reason to worry about this movie is a general sense of they-won't-do-it-right that can be both snobbish overreaction and also completely on the mark, not that it's unique to adaptations of comics, of course. Sometimes it's just skepticism over the film's take on the story, given bizarre choices like killing off several important and beloved characters in the third X-Men film, some jarringly early. (To be fair X-Men 3 wasn't an adaptation of any specific work, but rather of a set of characters.) Sometimes it's just a feeling that the people involved with the movie just don't "get it," no matter how good their intentions. This is how I felt about the first Hellboy2 film, which I thought ignored a massive load of source material and basic character identities in favor of quick, unsubtle exposition and cheap laughs.

In any case, I think I have successfully cut through these two categories of negativity (not to say I don't share them) and figured out my own specific concerns over the Tintin movie. A major part of the reason that the comics work so well for me is the simplicity of the art. Hergé, Tintin's creator, developed a style of drawing that used outlines, mostly solid colors, and very little else to communicate form, movement and expression. This was the birth of "Clear Line," a style practiced by many cartoonists up to today. It is among my favorite cartooning styles and the kind I aspire to teach myself, someday. 

Hergé's Tintin3

Of course, it's unusual to see a drawing of Tintin this big, unless you smash your face into the books. (I won't stop you.) But it gives you hard evidence of the simplicity of his linework, which is easy to forget about in beautiful sequences like the one below.

From Cigars of the Pharoah:4

However faithful to the spirit of the Tintin stories, the Spielberg film apparently wants nothing to do with the spirit of the art.

Spielberg's Tintin:5

That's not completely fair. The film is very visually accurate in that it follows Hergé's lead on detail in scenery, including vehicles, architecture and clothing style. It is also very visually accurate in that the caricaturish nature of his faces is preserved.

Hergé's Ivanovitch Sakharine:6

 Spielberg's Ivanovitch Sakharine (left):7

But this accuracy is what troubles me. There is something very unsettling about seeing impossible faces with impossibly believable texture. Maybe it's just a case of falling into the uncanny valley,8 but I also feel that having all that textural detail filled in to such depth actually works to distance me from the characters and the story rather than engaging me as one might assume. This is an idea that Scott McCloud discusses in Understanding Comics, where he suggests that "this is the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons [here meaning animated TV shows], though other factors such as universal identification, simplicity and the childlike features of many cartoon characters also play a part. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which allows us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!"9 I happen to think that McCloud may be hyperventilating a bit here, but I also agree for the most part. Douglas Wolk notes in his excellent Reading Comics that this is a problem within the world of comics too. Writing in 2006, he comments that "quasi-realistic painted comics by the likes of Alex Ross ... are very popular, but they suffer from a commitment to looking 'just like the real thing.' Ross's painted upgrades of standard superhero-comics imagery are stiff and glossy, as misguidedly 'realistic' as colorized black-and-white movies... They exude grand seriousness, but they leave too little to the imagination."10

From Alex Ross's Shazam! The Power of Hope:11

It's technically impressive, and very pretty, but it's ultimately alienating because it leaves nothing for your imagination to fill in, and it's the same problem I have with the Tintin movie. Of course, I get it: if you were inclined to perfect the art of the high-density computer-animated film, it is a logical choice because of the very qualities that turn me off of the project. And maybe filling in the minute detail is actually a way of honoring the fact that it's a motion picture adaptation, doing exactly what its source material couldn't do -- Watchmen, after all, stunk in my book because felt like a movie that just used the comics as storyboards, truly honoring neither medium.

Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. If I see Tintin, I'll be sure to write about it here; don't hold your breath.

Top Image Credit:, © (presumably) Paramount Pictures
1. The Adventures of Tintin at Internet Movied Database:
2. I just wanted to take a moment to apologize for my inconsistent italics here. I'm having trouble keeping track of when I'm referring to a character, a franchise, or a title, each of which would be treated somewhat differently. Sorry!
3. Image source:, © Casterman
4. Image source:, © Casterman. Apologies to Jason Lutes, who wrote this blog post in 2008. I obviously took these ideas to heart, but I hope my post does not feel like a rip-off.
5. Image source:, © Paramount Pictures
6. Image source:, © Casterman
7. Image source:, © Paramount Pictures
8. The uncanny valley at Wikipedia:
9. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
10. Wolk, Douglas. (2008). Reading comics. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.
11. Image source:, © Alex Ross and DC Comics


Tom said...

Well said. The style is mystifying: animation made to look more like live action / live action made to look more like animation. If you're going to make an animated Tintin, why not make it in the Tintin style? If you don't want to replicate the style, why animate it at all? Trying to see it from the capitalist's point of view, I'm still mystified. Who is this supposed to appeal to? It seems too esoteric and inaccessible for non-Tintin fans, and too far away from Tintin for Tintin fans. Weird.

Nick said...

I think it's worth noting Spielberg didn't know of Tintin till after Raiders, that is, as a grown up.

See this fine article by Jadson "Berlin" Lutes:

"When I can count the threads in Captain Haddock’s sweater, some small part of me will die."

Patrick Holt said...

Tom & Nick: Nina (my girlfriend) and I recently tried to watch the old Tintin cartoon, and we found that, despite its very faithful adaptation visually -- it's basically a Clear Line cartoon -- it just didn't work for us. I'd like to give some well-thought-out reason, but honestly we just couldn't handle the fact that Snowy didn't talk!