WARNING: THIS PIECE IS ANALYSIS AND NOT A REVIEW. IT IS FULL OF MASSIVE SPOILERS AND SHOULD ONLY BE READ AFTER SEEING THE FILM.
“Animation is the father of cinema. [Animators] have to have in their mind a clear picture of how a chipmunk rolls over in the snow. They’ve got to know what each side of that chipmunk looks like…They have to use their imagination and paint these things twelve cells a second and [understand] how the fur moves and how the wind’s blowing…That’s why I think all directors should be animators first.”
Steven Spielberg, 1978
“It’s an art form that allows me to have control over lighting. I can underwrite or overwrite a performance and through the animators put [something into a performance] that even the actors didn’t bring to the bay. I’m pretty much able to push the camera – I’ve never been a dolly grip before – I’m able to be a focus-puller, I’ve never done that before. I have an effect on the hair and make up.”
Steven Spielberg, 2011
“I just adored it. It made me more like a painter than ever before.”
Steven Spielberg, 2011
Steven Spielberg has always had an affinity for animation. Along with the Pinocchio references in Close Encounters and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, he’s also worked as producer of films like An American Tail and The Land Before Time. It always seemed like a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ he would direct an animated film of his own, and in 2011 he finally did, using motion-capture technology to realise his long-gestating Tintin adaptation, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.
The film produced a mixed critical response. Some found the technology too rubbery to truly convince, some hit out at the episodic script, while others expressed concerns over the lack of heart. One of those was Joseph McBride, author of the unofficial bio, Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Writing in February of 2012 about Spielberg’s first official feature film, The Sugarland Express, McBride also mentioned Tintin, arguing that the film proves that “sometimes…Spielberg’s hyperkineticism can spin out of control, resulting in a film that seems like a perpetual motion machine, afraid to pause for reflection and ultimately enervating.”
McBride is right on one thing. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is certainly hyperkinetic and it rarely pauses. But it does reflect, sometimes literally in fact. Studying it gives a great insight into Spielberg’s talent as a film-maker and how he uses visuals to reflect character development and themes. This article will look closely at The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and analyse Spielberg’s use of his core visual motifs – light, reflection and the eye – and how they reflect his key themes – fatherhood, illumination and community.
Let there be light
Light has always been the foremost element of Spielberg’s mise-en-scène, and he puts it to interesting use in Tintin. At the start of his career, Spielberg used any kind of light to denote emotional illumination and spiritual understanding (see the mothership’s arrival in Close Encounters), but since A.I. Artificial Intelligence, he has created a distinct difference between artificial and natural light. This can be seen in the arrival of the Flesh Fair ships in AI, the dull blue hum that constitutes so much of Minority Report and the false white sheen of The Terminal‘s airport interiors.
In Tintin, Spielberg uses artificial and natural light to highlight Captain Haddock’s journey from down-and-out drunk to Tintin’s friend and ally as the pair try to work out the mystery surrounding The Unicorn, a sunken ship that once belonged to the Captain’s ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, and is rumoured to be the final resting place of a great treasure.
We first meet Haddock in a cabin on his ship, the Karaboudjan. He’s a sozzled old seadog, trapped in his cabin and so drunk he doesn’t see that the door is actually unlocked and he can escape at any time. Tintin realises he’s the key to unlocking the mystery surrounding the Unicorn and breaks him out of the ship. The two are pursued by Haddock’s back-stabbing crew and their new leader, the villainous Sakharine, who is also after the Unicorn’s treasure, but there’s a more figurative enemy after Haddock: alcoholism.
The escape from the Karaboudjan sequence finds Spielberg – helped by the possibilities of digital animation – making heavy use of artificial light to highlight Haddock’s battle with the bottle. Spielberg first makes the connection between light and booze when Haddock unlocks a door we’ve been led to believe will help he and Tintin find a way off the ship. Instead, it unlocks a stockade of liquor. Spielberg highlights the moment with harsh white light.
Haddock has had – visually at least – a moment of Spielbergian illumination, but it’s serving only to entrap him – and escaping it isn’t going to be easy. As Tintin and Haddock bid to get off the ship, Spielberg uses its spotlights to visually emphasise the call of the Karaboudjan and the remnants of Haddock’s boozy way of life. The lights flood and pierce the screen, constantly looking for Haddock like the Tripod searchlights in War of the Worlds.
Once Tintin and Haddock have made their escape, they find themselves stranded in the middle of the ocean. Tintin tries to coax some information about the Unicorn out of his new ally, and while Haddock seems to be more aware of his past than before, he still can’t quite find the illumination he needs. Spielberg again uses the greater visual control animation affords him to portray Haddock’s confused state of mind in the sky, which is a dusky mix of light and dark. The Captain is stuck between the two.
Haddock’s troubles with alcoholism again arise in the boat, which he eventually burns out of a drunken wish for a fire to warm he and Tintin up. They’re saved from imminent death by a seaplane that they commandeer. Tintin uses it to fly he and Haddock to Bagghar, where Sakharine has gone in search of further Unicorn clues. Before they can get there though, Haddock’s drinking strikes again as he consumes the medicinal alcohol that could have been used to fuel the empty plane. The pair crash and are left alone in the Sahara.
Finally, Haddock finds himself stuck in the ‘Land of Thirst’. With no alcohol, he’s forced to sober up, and this helps him think clearly and reconnect with his past. Tintin is, at last, going to get answers about the Unicorn. Spielberg again uses light to emphasise this, but instead of the artificial light that dominated the Karaboudjan, the light he uses here is natural light from the Sun. Indeed, the scene opens with a shot of a roaring sun set against a brilliant blue sky. This light continues throughout the scene as Haddock has flashbacks of the Unicorn, Sir Francis Haddock and his nemesis, the pirate Red Rackham.
With his new sense of clarity, Haddock are able to work out the secret of the Unicorn and it leads him to a final dockside showdown with Sakharine. Here, Haddock is tested once again, and Spielberg’s use of artificial light returns. Sakharine – who is revealed to be the descendent of Red Rackham – taunts Haddock with his past and the spectre of alcoholism, and Haddock is again surrounding by artificial light.
Finally, Haddock is presented with a choice: alcohol or the Unicorn. He chooses the latter, and Spielberg rewards him with warm natural light as the sun rises to illuminate the mystery and give Haddock and Tintin the final clue in their search.
Tintin and Haddock return to Marlinspike Hall, Haddock’s family home, in the film’s conclusion, and Spielberg once again plays with light. When Tintin had visited the building earlier in the film, when it was under Sakharine’s control, Spielberg had employed hard, blue shafts of light to reflect the disrepair that it had fallen into. Now, with the rightful owner re-installed, the light is soft, warm and inviting.
Haddock and Tintin come across the treasure that the string of clues leads to, and Spielberg uses the light of the gold to make a final point about Haddock’s new mental state. As it did when we saw it during an earlier flashback sequence involving Sir Francis and Red Rackham, the treasure emits of dull gold glow and Haddock choose to ignore it, instead embracing the natural light that is flooding through the windows. His journey from drunkard to worthy descendant is complete.
Another of Spielberg’s key themes is sight and reflection. His first film, Duel, opens with a shot of the lead character gazing into a mirror, and he’s evolved this visual motif since then, using reflection in particular to highlight truth and dreams.
Spielberg also uses mirrors to introduce his main character in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Our hero is at a flea market and strolls past a series of mirrors. He smooths down his famous quiff, but it soon bounces back. In a movie about identity and heritage, Spielberg uses mirrors and reflection to show the audience characters’ true natures. Tintin is the determined young reporter with an impudent hairdo to match. He can’t be beaten down any more than his hair can.
Though it is, of course, not impossible to pull reflections off in live action films, digital animation affords Spielberg the chance to do it with greater clarity. This is seen especially in his use of bottles to reflect Haddock’s growth. Two shots, one seen during Haddock’s introduction, another seen during his climactic battle with Sakharine, emphasise this. In the first, Haddock is trapped and distorted by the bottle. In the second, he takes control and uses it to trap Sakharine.
In one of the film’s most bravura sequences, Spielberg again calls on reflection and sight to both draw the audience in and highlight characters’ natures. The scene comes at the Bagghar palace of Omar Ben Salaad, a Sheik who has hired opera singer Bianca Castafiore to entertain him. A small audience is in attendance, and they are joined by Tintin, Haddock and Sakharine (who is using Castafiore to get close to Salaad and the third Unicorn replica which is in his possession and protected by a glass case). All are watching events through binoculars.
Later in the scene, Spielberg shows close-ups of Salaad and Sakharine. We see the reflection of Castafiore in both mens’ spectacles, suggesting a connection. But Spielberg uses focus to reveal their different intentions. Salaad, who is in utter awe of the singer, sees Castafiore clearly; Sakharine, who is using her, doesn’t. Indeed, the villain is looking over his glasses – over Castafiore – while Salaad’s cover his eyes completely.
Along with revealing character and thematic beats, these shots draw the audience into the action. At the start of the sequence, Spielberg had shown us the glass case the Unicorn model is in and the special ‘Nev-R Break’ sign on it. Clearly this case is important and clearly it’s going to take a lot to smash it. This is a piece of information that Tintin and Haddock are not aware of. They are also not in the know about Sakharine’s appearance at the event, though again the audience is.
Something is going on here, and Spielberg’s emphasis of the glasses and the binoculars subtly lets us know what it is: Sakharine means to use Castafiore’s high notes to smash the glass and get the Unicorn replica. At the end of the scene, his plan is successful, and Spielberg pays his audience off with a spectacular slow-motion shot of the smashing glass that makes full use of the 3D the film was shot in.
As he so often does, Spielberg has used his visuals to actively involve his audience in the drama and themes of the film, making it a truly communal experience…
The Tintin team
This leads us nicely into perhaps Spielberg’s most important theme: community and togetherness. When we first meet them, both Tintin and Haddock are alone. Haddock is trapped on his ship and Tintin’s only friend is his dog, Snowy. The introductory shots that I mentioned earlier (Tintin glimpsed in the mirrors, Haddock seen through an empty bottle) not only reflect their personalities but their isolation, and Spielberg works throughout the film to bring them together.
This is seen in two memorable match-cuts that would have been difficult to create without digital technology. The first comes after Haddock and Tintin escape from the Karaboudjan and end up adrift in the middle of nowhere. Haddock, determined to show his skills as a sailor, takes the oars of the small row boat he and Tintin are in and idiotically swings them about, knocking Tintin and Snowy unconscious. The pair are still at odds with one another and Spielberg cuts from the ocean to a puddle, with another character stepping on the boat within it, to highlight this.
Later in the film, Spielberg employs a similar match-cut. The pair have now become friends and allies, and resolve to find the treasure and uncover the secret of the Unicorn. They shake on it, and Spielberg cuts from the shape of their interlocked hands to some hills on which the two men are seen riding camels. They have become a team, and rather than being crushed by the world, they stand proudly up high backed by their friendship.
Spielberg uses cutting of a different kind to emphasise the characters’ triumphant togetherness towards the end of the film as Tintin, Haddock and Snowy make their way to Marlinspike Hall. Using the iconography of Herge’s characters, Spielberg creates three one-shots (one of each character) set against a rich blue sky. All three are head-shots and all three find the characters in similar poses. A new team has been formed.
Once Haddock and Tintin are in Marlinspike Hall, they find the treasure and look at each other across the globe that it’s hidden in. Spielberg frames the characters so their eyes are peeking out from either side of the globe. A connection has been made and, in Spielberg’s visual language, it’s the most important one two people can make.
Only a Haddock…
This scene also establishes what the true bounty of the film is. Like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Tintin is not about treasure, but family and fathers. All Spielberg’s visual motifs come together to highlight this in an early shot where he shows Tintin examining one of the Unicorn parchments with a magnifying glass under a lampshade. Tintin’s eye can be seen reflected in the magnifying glass and the parchment discusses ‘three Haddock brothers’ and features the word ‘light’. Family, light and eyes – all together in one shot. The mission is on…
This would have been a tricky shot to pull off with such clarity in live action, but it’s not until the flashback sequences that the digital animation really comes into its own. These scenes, which show what happened to Sir Francis on the Unicorn centuries earlier, allow Spielberg to cut from present to past seamlessly and emphasise the visual similarities between Haddock and Sir Francis.
Haddock has always had the nobility of his forefather, he just needed to realise it. This father obsession is, of course, one of Spielberg’s most famous themes, and it has evolved significantly over the years, with the stories he’s told switching from the son’s to the father’s point of view. Tintin, together with his other 2011 film War Horse, finds Spielberg taking another leap, using history as a way to explore our responsibilities to our fathers and forefathers, and our struggles in living up to them. With Lincoln scheduled for release at the end of the year and a Moses film reportedly in the pipeline, it seems that this theme will continue for the rest of the decade.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a perfect case study in Spielberg’s film-making. Like the Indiana Jones franchise it was compared to, the film shows how Spielberg can take somebody else’s material and a project that could be seen as impersonal, and turn it into a film that fundamentally reflects what he is about. In the below scene, which comes on the docks when Haddock and Tintin have finally worked the mystery out, Spielberg blends all the themes and visual motifs I have mentioned to create a shot that has a visual prominence that emphasises its importance. It is a rare moment of pause in a frenetic film, but it is by no means the only scene of reflection and emotion.