It’s getting close to Christmas time, and last year I did a bunch of non-traditional Christmas films, like Die Hard and Gremlins among others. When trying to figure out this week’s post, my brain got stuck on a film that isn’t really a Christmas film, but I suppose a winter film. When trying to pair it with something that went along with it, rather than something thematically appropriate, I chose something that came out around the same time, and that I saw in the theaters along with it. This week’s films are:
Steven Spielberg – The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Martin Scorsese – Hugo (2011)
I’ve covered both of these directors before, in some of their more famous work. But this is a bit of an eclectic pairing. Both films came out during the holiday season of 2011, and I saw both of them in the theaters at that time. I suppose this pairing is related to Christmas to me, because I saw them both right around Christmas. So these two aren’t so much thematically linked, but autobiographically linked.
Also, both films are a bit of a departure for both of these directors. Spielberg hadn’t done an animated film before, and Scorsese hadn’t done a light fantasy like this before.
Let’s see how they did.
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
A young reporter buys a model ship at a flea market, and suddenly begins getting offers to buy it for much more than he paid. When the ship is stolen from his apartment, he realizes that it’s part of a much larger plot, which sends him on a journey to strange lands chasing a mystery surrounding a shipwreck and the only survivor.
The film is directed by Steven Spielberg, and stars the voice talent of Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig and Andy Serkis. The film is based off the famous series of French comics that were wildly popular in Europe and marginally popular in the US, including an animated series, along with some video games in the 1990s. The film is the first animated film that Spielberg has ever directed.
Rather than go with the familiar cartoon style that the comic and earlier animated series had used, Spielberg went with a completely 3D animated style that’s been more popular, rendering the characters in a more realistic style, while still taking advantage of caricature when useful. The Tintin character and his dog Snowy look particularly realistic, but the other characters have their features exaggerated, sometimes to absurd proportions.
The animation itself is very well done. The movement and facial expressions don’t distract from the story, and tend to add to it. The animals are very active and inquisitive, which is a nice touch. The world feels alive, and that’s the main concern with any animation.
The story ramps up right away, with Tintin finding the ship within the first scene, and us meeting the villain, Sakharine, immediately after. It sets up the mystery fairly well, and we see Tintin researching the case. The mystery of the film is also the mystery of this ship model, the Unicorn.
The ship was captained by Sir Francis Haddock. It was attacked by a pirate named Red Rackham, and the ship was destroyed, leaving only Sir Francis alive. When Tintin’s model ship is destroyed, he begins tracking down the story of Sir Francis, finding his ancestral home, which has another copy of the ship, guarded by Sakharine. We as the audience realizes that there are actually three copies of the ship, and that the secret could be unlocked by finding all three ships. We also discover that each ship hides a small scroll with a poem, and some strange markings. Finally, Sakharine tells Tintin that Sir Francis said that only a true Haddock could learn the secret of the Unicorn.
This begins the mystery, as Tintin finds one of the scrolls, which has fallen out of his ship, and Sakharine kidnaps him to retrieve it, putting him on a ship bound for the third scroll. From here we go from peril to action to action to peril until getting to the end of the film.
I remember when I first saw this movie I was a little lukewarm on it. So I was interested to see how I felt about it with a few years distance.
What struck me this time is how much this film plays exactly like an Indiana Jones movie. To the point where I wondered if some of the action sequences were leftover ideas from Indiana Jones. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the main thing I was thinking about while watching it.
Where the movie falls down, I think, is that we don’t get enough breaks in the action to catch our breaths. And when it does, it focuses too much on comic relief. The character archetypes in the film are hero, villain, and comic relief. But there’s one hero, one villain, and then several comic relief characters. We first meet Thompson and Thomson, two Scotland Yard detectives who are completely helpless and clueless. These two characters are voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, and they make the most of the comedic credentials. The characters are funny, and they contribute to a couple of plotlines, but they perhaps take up too much screentime.
The other comic relief character is Captain Haddock, played by Andy Serkis. This character does something I never thought I’d see in a film again: it brings back the comedy drunk. Captain Haddock spends the first half of his screentime motivated entirely by getting drunk. He does provide some comedy, but I’m amazed that they used what is essentially a crippling alcohol addiction for laughs. In one scene while they’re trying to escape a ship, he runs Tintin through a dangerous room to steal a key, only for us to find out that it opens the liquor cabinet. In another scene, the two are on a lifeboat, trying to survive, and Captain Haddock gets drunk and sets the boat on fire to warm up. He’s redeemed later in the film, as he’s the key to solving the mystery, but it’s so strange to see in a modern film. I assume it’s a major part of the source material, but I’m not really sure.
Haddock was told the secret when he was younger, but got drunk that evening forgetting all of it. This is the main roadblock for most of the film. But he remembers as a result of being forced to get sober, and when he does, the film takes full advantage, putting us into a flashback sequence that takes place over several sequences, as Haddock slowly remembers the story of the Unicorn. We learn that Sir Francis was carrying a load of secret reclaimed pirate treasure when he was attacked. His ship was taken over, and his crew was killed. Rather than allowing the pirate Red Rackham win, Sir Francis escapes and ignites the entire magazine, destroying the ship, and sending all the gold to the bottom, except for a bit that he was able to gather in his hat. The secret of the unicorn is where it was sunk. Whoever finds it will be able to get a massive amount of money.
The film uses Captain Haddock’s character model as Sir Francis, and though he’s masked, it does a poor job of hiding that Red Rackham is Sakharine’s character model. It’s revealed later that Sakharine is a descendant of Red Rackham. His motivation isn’t just finding the treasure, but getting revenge for his ancestor.
The action setpieces are generally well-done, but maybe a bit too complex, and as I mentioned before, maybe a bit too frequent. They do ramp up in a pleasant way. We get some simple foot chases early, one of which features Snowy the dog trying to catch up with Tintin who’s been kidnapped. We then get a couple of escape sequences on the boat taking Tintin to the third model ship.
We then move to the most involved action sequence of the film, in which Sakharine and Tintin are trying to get all 3 scrolls. Sakharine is driving away, and Tintin takes a bike with a sidecar. This turns into a massive chase through the narrow streets of a city with the scrolls changing hands several times, the city crumbling around them. The scene feels straight out of an Indiana Jones film, with the constant turnabouts, characters going in and out of peril, and the villain winning not through gaining the scrolls and escaping, but by threatening the hero with the death or injury of his friends if he doesn’t turn them over. It’s classic pulp adventure fodder, much like what Indiana Jones is based on. And in fact, Tintin comes from that cultural era as well, so it’s a good pairing.
My favorite action scene of all though occurs at the end of the film. Tintin and Haddock have figured out where Sakharine is going, and they meet him at the dock with Scotland Yard. But Sakharine puts up a fight, and he and Haddock have a fight with two large cranes, echoing the swordfight their ancestors had hundreds of years before. This is a great action scene because it really connects the entire story, and center then entire struggle up to now on this one moment. Just a great bit of filmmaking.
In the end, Tintin and Haddock get the scrolls, and discover they lead right back to Sir Francis ancestral home, which Captain Haddock seems to own now for some reason. They find a secret room in the basement, filled with art and other items, including a large globe. Haddock notices an island on the globe that doesn’t actually exist, and Tintin explains it might be a clue. Haddock presses it, and the globe pops open to reveal a hat full of treasure and another map.
This sets up a sequel which I don’t want to say will never happen, but it doesn’t seem likely.
A young boy named Hugo lives in a train station, winding the clocks, and trying to avoid detection from the police while stealing food to survive. When he attempts to steal a wind up mouse from a toymaker he is caught. Rather than have him arrested, the toymaker sees his talent and has him work in the shop repairing toys. Hugo is drawn into the mysterious world of the toymaker by his ward, Isabella. The two children strike up a friendship and begin investigating Papa Georges, slowly uncovering his past.
The film is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Ben Kingsley, along with well-known child actors Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz. I call them child actors because even seven years later, both actors are just beginning careers as adults. The film also has cameos from some other well-known actors like Christopher Lee, Jude Law, and Michael Stuhlbarg. We also have bigger parts for Sasha Baron Cohen, who plays Gustav the police officer, and Emily Mortimer, who plays the flower seller who he falls in love with.
The film starts out with the daily life of the train station, all observed by Hugo from high above, in one of the hanging clocks. Hugo crawls around in the walls away from the action, watching everything. There are a dozen little daily dramas playing out. Two shopkeepers flirt, but are kept apart by the woman’s dog, who hates the man. The police officer has a crush on the flower girl, but is embarrassed by his leg brace, which he got in World War I.
Hugo is a bit of a mystery. Why is a small child doing this work? It seems clear that he wants to avoid detection. When he attempts to steal from the toymaker and is caught, the toymaker forces him to empty his pockets, and we see a bunch of small gears and machine parts, along with a notebook. The film does a great job of taking us down the rabbit hole in this scene. When the toymaker Georges looks at the notebook, which is full of technical drawings and sketches of a mechanical man, he is deeply affected by it. Hugo demands the book back, as it’s clearly precious to him, but he refuses to say why.
These mysteries are solved early on, but those are replaced by another set of mysteries. We learn that Hugo had a happy life with his father, a museum curator who was interested in technology. He and his son spend the evenings working on a mechanical automaton that he found in the museum. Once it is complete, his father believes it will draw a picture. But one night there’s a fire in the museum, killing his father, and placing Hugo in the care of his uncle, Claude; a drunk who keeps the clocks in the train station running. After teaching Hugo how to deal with the clocks, he disappears, and we don’t see him again until it’s convenient for the story.
The relationship between Hugo and Georges is the core of the film, but Isabelle plays a large role as well. She is essentially the catalyst of the story. Without her character, nothing else happens. She is the bridge between all the other characters. When Georges threatens to burn the notebook, even giving Hugo a handkerchief full of ash to prove he did it, Isabelle takes Hugo aside and promises him he didn’t destroy it. Her interest in Hugo gives him the confidence to continue approaching Georges and eventually gaining his respect.
So we have a few main threads of story. The first is Hugo working on the automaton to discover what it does, which he kept after his father’s death. The second is the mystery of Georges himself, who he is and more importantly, who he was. The film does a wonderful job of having the first plotline feed into the other that makes the film really satisfying.
The subplots tend to feed into the main storylines as well. Gustav, the police officer who revels in sending young boys to the orphanage, was an orphan himself, Hugo and Isabelle become fascinated with the movies, which Isabelle has been forbidden to attend, a directive of Georges.
As the film goes on, Hugo fixes the automaton, which draws a picture of a moon with a face with a large rocket sticking out of it’s eye. It is signed Georges Melies. The film fans in the audience have already solved the mystery here.
Georges is in fact the legendary film pioneer Georges Melies, most famous for his film A Trip to the Moon. Melies was known for his elaborate films, with big sets, interesting costumes, and amazing special effects, in an era where most filmmakers were just setting up a camera on a street corner and filming whatever happened. Melies was one of the first filmmakers who understood how powerful film could be long before many others.
The tragedy of his life and work are played out on screen here. In his era, film wasn’t valued as something that should be saved. After it played at a local theater, it was frequently thrown away. Melies himself landed on hard financial times during World War I, and burned all his sets, and was forced to sell his film negatives to a company that could use the component chemicals, destroying the films. He believes his films to be all lost, his life’s work. The automaton was also one of his creations, explaining his reaction to it. Through the help of Hugo, Isabelle and a professor they met who idolizes Melies, they show him that his work is not forgotten, and that his life has had value.
There’s a really strong metaphor of broken things and repair in the film. Melies build and fixes toys, Hugo is fascinated with fixing things. The station police officer has a leg brace, indicating his broken status. Hugo himself states that the reason he loves fixing things is so that machines can do what they were meant to do.
Hugo wants to fix Georges, but of course, Hugo is broken as well. The message of the film suggests that it would be wonderful if we could just go to a repairman and have all our problems solved, but we can’t. We have to go through the work, and accept the past, and move through it on our own. Both characters manage to help each other.
There’s a magic to this film that’s always captured my imagination. When I went to see it for the first time, I had no idea it was about Georges Melies, but I’ve always been fascinated by his films. Scorsese is well-known for holding filmmakers of the past in great reverence, and this was the perfect story for him to explore that interest.
The Double Feature
It’s been a few years since I saw either of these two films. When I first saw them, I felt that Hugo was one of my favorite films ever, while The Adventures of Tintin was well-animated, with good action scenes, but was missing something to make it really unique and special. In general, I still feel the same way.
My main problem with Tintin is that I don’t know who this film is for. Is it for people who loved the character of Tintin? Or is it for lovers of animation? Or action adventure movies?
For an animated movie, it has a very adult feeling to it. I’m a big believer that animation doesn’t have to be just for kids, so I like that, but I imagine a wide audience was less enthusiastic. The sources of comedy are dry and witty, but then the film spends most of it’s run time in heart pounding action scenes, which are well-done, but loses the intelligence of the film that it had tried to cultivate previously.
In essence, this is an Indiana Jones film, but no one told audiences to expect that.
Hugo is a beautiful dream. Every beat and character work for me. I feel like I could watch the film a dozen times and not get bored. The metaphor of broken people trying to fix others in their own way really resonates with me. I also think the casting and performances are wonderful. Ben Kingsley is the perfect Melies, and Scorsese found the perfect young actors to join.
I certainly don’t dislike Tintin, I actually enjoy it quite a bit. I’m just not sure when I’ll feel like watching it again. Hugo on the other hand is one that I’ll revisit over the years, and try to introduce to others.
I have begun writing my dissertation in earnest. I put down around 12000 words last week, and if I can do that every week between here and the end, I should wrap up right around the beginning of February. Of course, I’m hoping that things can go faster once I really get rolling, but I’ll be satisfied as long as I’m able to send out the dissertation by March. I think I’m in good shape to do that still.
For next week’s films, I think I’m going to not announce in advance what films I’m doing. I think I’ll decide in the moment. Perhaps when I have a reliable streaming service to pore over again, I’ll start doing it once again. But for now, we’ll leave it a mystery. Both for you and me.
See you then.