Tintin. Snowy. Haddock. Calculus.
A few short years ago, hearing these words would have likely elicited one of two reactions from you: a warm glow of recognition or sudden concern for my mental health (okay, fine...you don't give a fig about my mental health). If you belong to the former group then you are well aware of the adventures of Tintin and his colorful group of friends. If you're in the latter group, then you probably grew up in America.
Tintin was a comic strip creation of the immensely gifted Belgian artist Hergé. Over a period of roughly 50 years (ranging from the late 20s to the mid 70s), Hergé released 23 rip-roaring comic book adventures (his 24th remains sadly unfinished) featuring the plucky reporter, his canine sidekick (Snowy) and memorable pals (including Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus). While the tales of Tintin are positively huge in Europe, the character never quite caught on in the States. Of course, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are now poised to change all that with their upcoming ambitious motion capture animated film that promises to put Tintin under a global spotlight.
Lest you think that Spielberg and Jackson's film will be the first time that Tintin sees the animated light of day, I assure you this is not the case. The character has been adapted numerous times before and this release captures the first season of his animated show that ran for three seasons (from 1991 to 1992) as a joint production of Ellipse (France) and Nelvana (Canada). While the episodes follow the original broadcast schedule, they are definitely out of sync with the chronology of the published source material. The first season gives us the following 13 episodes :
Before I continue with any discussion of the individual episodes, it's probably best to lay out the characters for the uninitiated. As I've already mentioned, Tintin is a young Belgian reporter who is largely defined by his heroic nature and his determination to follow any story to its conclusion with little regard for his own safety. Snowy is Tintin's adorable fox terrier who amps up the cuteness quotient while coming to his master's aid in many a sticky situation. A major recurring character (and fan favorite) is Captain Haddock, a crusty old grump who usually sets his cynicism aside just long enough to join Tintin on some of his adventures. Professor Calculus is the Q to Tintin's Bond. He is a slightly deaf but fairly ingenious inventor who often comes in handy. Serving quite the opposite purpose are Thomson and Thompson, a pair of bumbling detectives who provide comic relief through their general ineptitude.
It may seem like Tintin has a large supporting cast of characters but I assure you they are integral to the success of the ensuing adventures because (gulp), Tintin himself is kind of boring. Before any Tintin fans start hammering out angry emails (I promise I'm one of you), allow me to explain myself. As I said earlier, the character's defining features are his heroic nature and determination. While these are admirable virtues to have, they also render him quite one-dimensional. It's a good thing then that these very same shortcomings position him as a perfect cipher for the reader / viewer to project his or her own thrill seeking needs upon. As the mental distance between you and the character vanishes and you find yourself being plugged into his adventures, the spirited supporting cast becomes an immense boon. They color in the details that give a tale its life while Tintin takes care of the necessary plot mechanics. Everything in its place and everyone serves a purpose.
I mentioned earlier that the episodes don't follow the chronology of Hergé's source material. While this may be disappointing to purists, it does serve a practical purpose for the show. The first two episodes adapt The Crab with the Golden Claws which is where Tintin encounters Captain Haddock for the very first time. This is key because the next set of episodes (The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure) build upon Tintin and Haddock's friendship by tossing them into a thrilling yarn filled with pirates, thieves and sunken treasure. The story told by these 5 episodes lays such a seamless foundation for the characters that it is actually the basis for Spielberg and Jackson's film.
The trend of interlocking stories continues as Cigars of the Pharaoh leads directly into The Blue Lotus. Since both of these tales are based on books that came before The Crab with the Golden Claws, we don't get the benefit of Captain Haddock's curmudgeonly presence. Instead we get a globe-trotting escapade that sees Tintin and Snowy traveling through Egypt, India and China in pursuit of opium smugglers. It's a fun adventure that employs a large cast of characters in a very effective manner. I can't quite say the same for the next Haddock-less story, The Black Island. I must admit that this one was never one of my favorites when I was growing up and my slight distaste for it has carried over. It makes the critical mistake of replacing the awe-inspiring sense of discovery found in the other adventures with an overdose of empty action. At one point a car chase turns into a chase on a train which then turns into a chase via planes. Considering the titular island only shows up in the final 10 minutes of the second episode, it feels like much ado about nothing. At least the final tale, The Calculus Affair, closes things out on a high note. Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock investigate the kidnapping of Professor Calculus with a fine blend of detective work and action that never feels out of place.
From a visual standpoint, I have to give massive kudos to the animation team. The character designs adhere so closely to Hergé's originals that one would swear the panels of the comic book have been set into motion. The animators perfectly capture Hergé's ligne claire style in what amounts to a labor of love. Of course, not everything from the books has been carried over exactly. This is partly due to the time constraint of fitting each tale into a pair of 22 minute episodes (except for Red Rackham's Treasure which only gets one episode to itself). Some of the material has also been toned down a bit to make it more kid-friendly. Haddock drinks less, fewer characters smoke and the gun play is less prominent. This is not to say that the show has been neutered. It still has plenty of unsavory behavior on display including (implied) murder, (light) boozing and some of Haddock's inimitable cursing ("Blistering Barnacles" and "Thundering Typhoons"). Honestly, I think die-hards will be more put off by the fact that unlike the books, Snowy doesn't talk via thought bubbles anymore.
Rather than quibbling about what was left out and what was altered, I have to ask myself a simple question. Did this show capture the essence of those books that took my imagination on a wild ride as a youngster and set the standard for all future tales of adventure and discovery? You can't see me now but my inner ten year old is nodding vigorously.