The Adventures of Tintin (2011) is an animated adventure movie directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the immensely popular series of books (some 200 million copies in 50 languages have been sold worldwide1) of the same name created by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983), who wrote under the pen name of Hergé. The Academy Award-nominated score for this film was composed and conducted by the legendary John Williams, and is his 25th feature film collaboration with Spielberg2. This essay will focus on his music for this film—particularly on his extensive use of leitmotifs—and will compare it to his scores in other Spielberg movies.
The film is based on three of the original comic books: The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), and Red Rackham's Treasure (1944)1. It was the first-ever animated film for both Spielberg and Williams. A brief synopsis of the plot is laid out here, to give the music that is discussed below context:
Tintin, a young journalist, and his dog Snowy are browsing in an outdoor market in a European town. Tintin buys a model of a three-masted sailing ship, the Unicorn, on the cheap, but is then immediately accosted by the sinister Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine, and the mysterious figure of Barnaby, who both try to buy the model from Tintin, without success. Tintin takes the ship home, but it is broken during a fight between Snowy and a neighbour's cat. As it breaks, a parchment scroll slips out of the ship's mast. Snowy spots it but is unable to alert Tintin. Meanwhile, incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson are on the trail of a pickpocket, Aristides Silk. Tintin then visits Sakharine in Marlinspike Hall, where he learns that there are at least two model ships. Tintin finds the scroll when he goes home, and puts it in his wallet, which is then stolen by Silk.
Later, Tintin is shot at, then abducted by accomplices of Sakharine, and imprisoned on the SS Karaboudjan. On board, Tintin escapes and meets the ship's captain, Haddock who is permanently drunk, and doesn't know what's happening on board his ship. Tintin, Haddock and Snowy eventually escape from the Karaboudjan in a lifeboat. Sakharine sends a seaplane to find them, but Tintin is able to capture the plane, and fly towards the (fictitious) Moroccan port of Bagghar. They crash in the desert.
Dehydrated in the heat, and suffering from a sudden lack of alcohol, Haddock hallucinates, and starts to remember stories about his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, who was captain of the Unicorn during the 17th century. Sir Francis' treasure-laden ship was attacked by a pirate ship, led by the masked Red Rackham, and after a fierce battle and eventual surrender, Sir Francis chose to sink the Unicorn, and most of the treasure, rather than allow it to fall into Rackham's hands. It transpires that there were three models of the Unicorn, each containing a scroll. Together, the scrolls will reveal the location of the sunken Unicorn, and its treasure.
In Bagghar, Tintin and the Captain find out that the third model ship is in the possession of the wealthy Omar Ben Salaad, but it is encased in a bullet-proof glass display case. Sakharine's plan is to stage a concert involving famous diva Bianca Castafiore, the "Milanese nightingale", whose penetrating singing voice will be able to shatter the glass case, allowing Sakharine's trained hawk to fly down and steal the third scroll. After a chase down to the harbour, pursued by Tintin and Haddock, Sakharine finally escapes with all three scrolls. Tintin chases him back to Europe and arranges a police reception for him on the dockside. Haddock and Sakharine, who is revealed to be the descendant of Red Rackham, replay their ancestors' swashbuckling sword fight, using dockside cranes, swords, and even bottles of whiskey. Haddock is eventually victorious and Sakharine is promptly arrested by Thomson and Thompson.
With the three scrolls in their possession, Tintin and Haddock find that the indicated location is Marlinspike Hall, and that the hall had been built originally by Sir Francis Haddock. There, in the cellar, they find some of the treasure, and a clue to the location of the sunken Unicorn. Both men agree to continue the adventure1.
The entire movie was filmed using motion capture technology, at Peter Jackson’s (the producer’s) insistence3. When news of this reached fans initially, they were apprehensive, to say the least4. Upon its 3-D release however, most doubts (but not all5) were assuaged6. In the end, the motion-capture gamble paid off; the movie was a box-office success, grossing more than 370 million dollars worldwide7, paving the way for a possible trilogy8.
The score was a phenomenal hit with audience and critics alike, and was hailed as a welcome return to form for Williams following his three and a half absence from feature films9. “The colors [in Hergé’s books] seem to be almost Gauguin-like. Yellows and purples and green-reds," Williams said about his experience finding inspiration to compose this score, adding that the look of old cars and European architecture made instruments like the musette, a French accordion, seem apt for the movie's scenes of fast-paced street comedy10. The “Master of the Leitmotif” really went to work in this film, composing themes for characters and places, and criss-crossing them together in a complex tapestry. As one critic notes in his enthusiastic review of the soundtrack album,
I think I counted no less than 10 different themes…weaving in and out of exciting action riffs, gorgeous orchestrations that put you right into various locations around the world in seconds, mysterious legend-exploring passages, character-defining moments, and virtuoso concert arrangements that must have left every orchestra member desperate to catch their breath! Balancing out everything you’d expect in a good globe-trotting adventure are moments of true comedy, thanks to the themes for Captain Haddock and the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson9.
Given the genre and plot of the movie, and its director-composer duo, comparisons between the scores of Tintin and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) seemed inevitable. These take on an almost poetic shade however, in light of the backstory to the making of Tintin8: when a review compared Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin (the books), Spielberg’s secretary bought him French-language editions, and he immediately fell in love with its art. Meanwhile, the comics' creator Hergé, who didn't like the previous live action film versions and the cartoon, became a fan of Spielberg; he "thought Spielberg was the only person who could ever do Tintin justice". Spielberg then scheduled to meet with Hergé in 1983, but Hergé died that week. His widow decided to give Spielberg the rights. It seems almost fitting then, that several leitmotifs in the movie—particularly the one associated with the Unicorn—call to mind similar sinister-sounding cues in the Indiana Jones movie, and lend the score its darker side.
RLA aside, we hear echoes of Williams’ other collaborations with Spielberg right from the start too; the opening sequence of Tintin is visually reminiscent of the one in Catch Me If You Can (2002)—both are retro-styled 2-D animations—and Williams reinforces this similarity aurally with piano-dominated accompanying music. The nimble-fingered piano initially does a back-and-forth with a bass clarinet and a harpsichord until other synth instruments join in, and the resultant fast-paced theme has the espionage, adventure sound that was heard in the CMYC opening credits, except that it is jauntier and as a result more suited to the lighter nature of this film’s subject. It also calls to mind the haphazard, jazzy tune that Williams composed for the “Knight Bus” theme in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003), and some feel that this quasi-jazz sound resonates throughout the entire score11. Williams additionally manages to “Mickey Mouse” some of the action taking place on the screen in these opening credits, and as we progress through the movie, we come to realise that this simple, adaptable music also serves as Tintin’s theme, reappearing in various reimaginings as the story unfolds—we hear an orchestral take on this theme during the scene where Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy escape from the Karaboudjan, for instance. It also resurfaces when Tintin pilots the plane through the storm, and during the chase scene in Bagghar, among many other moments. What is really interesting to note however, is that Tintin’s theme is highly underplayed compared to the other leitmotifs that Williams develops throughout the course of the movie; many reviewers were puzzled by this11. I believe that the most likely explanation for this is that Williams was staying faithful to Hergé’s original character design, in which Tintin is purposely portrayed as having a neutral manner; besides serving the function of balancing the evil and silliness that surrounds him, this rendering gives the reader a chance to really slip into Tintin’s shoes and not merely follow the adventures of a strong protagonist12.
The next major theme that we are introduced to is the Unicorn theme, which ends up leaving the strongest impression on the audience. Besides being reminiscent of the darker themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, it has been compared to the Buckbeak theme in Harry Potter POA11, and it is also highly suggestive of the main Harry Potter theme. It occurs repeatedly in the movie and lends an element of mystery to the score; it is eventually associated with the scrolls too. Since the leitmotif of the main protagonist is so underplayed, one could almost construe that Williams uses the Unicorn theme as the dominant theme of the movie in its place. We first hear it when Tintin spies the reflection of the model Unicorn in a mirror in the marketplace; it is played on a solo clarinet, and the sound of crashing waves and creaking wood are cleverly blended in. This theme then reappears in several scenes, solidifying its place as the main theme by the end of the movie: when Tintin researches the history of the Unicorn in the library, when he finds the second model at Marlinspike hall and then the scroll back at his own house, during his interrogation on the ship and Haddock’s hallucination in the desert—where stingers are placed at appropriate moments in the theme—and during the final revelation of the movie, to name a few obvious recurrences.
Snowy’s theme on the other hand, is a lovely, upbeat piece of music and is one of the few places in this score that Williams leans toward the music that is traditionally composed for children’s animated movies. It is infectiously playful in nature, and the quick, rising notes bring to mind the yipping of a dog9. Williams uses the orchestra and the woodwinds, particularly the flute, to great effect, and the masterful piano work underscores certain parts while dominating others. We are introduced to this theme when Snowy chases the cat at the beginning of the film, and it resurfaces when he saves Tintin from the dog at Marlinspike hall. Other noteworthy appearances of this theme include the scenes where Snowy chases Tintin’s abductors, the one where he rescues Tintin on the ship, and when he trips up Sakharine’s henchmen in the final crane-fight scene.
Haddock’s theme is introduced when Tintin and Snowy barge into his quarters through the window after escaping Sakharine’s goons. It is a low-key brass and woodwind theme that one can immediately associate with naval captains, but it has a comical quality to it since Haddock provides the main laughs in this movie. Williams develops this theme extensively—more than any other protagonist’s theme—and it morphs to match Haddock’s change in character as the film progresses. While it starts off having a dubious quality, much like the drunken captain, by the end—particularly in the scene when all hope is lost, and Haddock provides Tintin the encouragement to go on—the leitmotif has sobered up, and takes on a warm, full character. His connection with Marlinspike hall is suggested by Williams’ music at the start of the movie, during the scene where Tintin breaks in for the first time, though only careful, repeated listenings reveal this intricacy in the composition—Williams brilliantly inverts the main melody of Haddock’s theme here, while employing the same deep woodwind instrument11. This connection is made clear in the music of the final scene however, which takes place at the same locale, and features an orchestrated version of Haddock’s leitmotif.
It is interesting to note that while Sakharine, the antagonist, does not get his own theme, his ancestor Red Rackham does. It appears first in the fight scene between him and Sir Francis, and is played on low, menacing strings. This music returns during the final fight, when their respective ancestors pick up where they left off, as it were; we hear the Red Rackham leitmotif clearest then, when it is bequeathed to Sakharine. The theme for Sir Francis, and it seemed like Williams intended that he have one, is too deeply entrenched in the swollen Unicorn theme that dominates most of Haddock’s flashback to identify; in any case, since Haddock’s theme was so well developed, Williams didn’t need to transfer themes from Sir Francis to him. Since the fight scenes between the two generations are brilliantly mirrored, Williams by and large repeats the music played during Haddock’s flashback during the final fight scene to lend it a sense of finality. The orchestrated score that accompanied the battle on the high seas—the melody of which is played on the violin and viola while the cello and bass hammer away in the lower register9—is also played when the cranes battle, and then the swordfight scene between Haddock and Sakharine has almost exactly the same music as the one that played when their ancestors did battle on the Unicorn all those years ago. Williams does however, throw in other themes here. For instance, we hear echoes of Haddock’s theme when he ironically gains the upper hand in the sword fight by throwing bottles of alcohol at Sakharine, Tintin’s theme when he swoops in to snatch the scrolls from Sakharine’s hand, and as mentioned above, Snowy’s theme when he spills the crate.
The bumbling Interpol agents, Thomson and Thompson, also get a theme of their own, and it is exactly what one would expect: silly, lazy jazz. This leitmotif is largely unchanged throughout the course of the movie, and reappears when the agents themselves do. A critic notes that the music calls to mind William’s score in Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) because of its “prominent accordion and clarinet usage”11.
Besides all the themes already mentioned, other musical ideas that Williams adds to already-bursting palette of sounds are themes identified with the treasure, the exotic locations—most notably Bagghar—and the “Milanese Nightingale”. He additionally employs the “mirroring” technique mentioned earlier frequently; a notable example of this is when the music that played during the escape from the Karaboudjan when the lifeboat drops, repeats during the scene where Haddock and Tintin jump from the fort window.
Clearly then, even after all these years, the Master of the Leitmotif has not lost his touch. The score to Tintin showcases his astounding ability to take a myriad of ideas, and weave them together tightly, coherently, and beautifully. The Academy Award nomination stands testament to Williams’ monumental triumph with this amazingly complex score; at 80 years old, the man is still going strong. Yet there is a feeling that this score means something to Williams as well—indeed when reading the interviews that he gave around the time of release of this movie, one cannot help but be moved at this man’s dedication to his art, and “marvel at his ability to so intelligently annihilate his competition in the industry of film music.”11 As one reviewer elegantly observed,
[Tintin] is about discovering self-respect in the face of adversaries external and within oneself, and having the strength of character to settle those problems. That may be why Williams' underrated score is fashioned the way it is, pieces coming together in a way that's big and personal at the same moment, almost closer to the intimate style of Catch Me if You Can and Williams' introspective concert works. There is something not empty but questing in the way he treats Tintin, how questions are posed and answers are supplied by the drama of Haddock's journey to self-respect, that make this score shaded with psychological insight into how human beings communicate, and expressed with delicate unshowy but nimble motion and clean lines13.
The Maestro himself had this to say about his admirable work ethic and relationship with Spielberg over these past 4 decades,
[Spielberg is] a much younger man than I am and he will go on a lot longer than I'll be able to, but for the time being we're having a wonderful time. Time goes by so quickly…Steven and I, when we're working together we're so much in the now, in this moment. There isn't a past, there isn't a future, you're so completely absorbed and concentrated. If you do that long enough, you suddenly realize, my God, I'm 80 years old, what happened? What happened was a well-spent, focused period of time14.
1 "The Adventures of Tintin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 May 2007. Web. 16 June 2012.
2 “AFI'S Master Class: The Art Of Collaboration.” TCM Turner Classic Movies, n.d. Web. 16 June 2012.
3 "News Etc." Empire: pp. 20–25. June 2009. Print.
4 Mathewes-Green, Frederica “The Wonderful Adventures of Tintin.”National Review Online, 23 December 2011. Web. 16 June 2012
5 Whitfield, Ed. “Film Review: The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn.” The Ooh Tray—Film and Literature in Abundance, 29 October 2011. Web. 16 June 2012
6 Nathan, Ian. “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” Empire Magazine, n.d. Web. 16 June 2012
7 “The Adventures of Tintin.” Box Office Mojo, n.d. Web. 16 June 2012.
8 Nepales, Ruben V. "Spielberg May Co-direct Next with Peter Jackson". Philippine Daily Inquirer, 18 May 2008. Web. 16 June 2012.
9 LeBlanc, Jason. “The Adventures of Tintin (2011)—Album Analysis #1.” John Williams Fan Network, 18 October 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.
10 Jurgensen, John. “The Last Movie Maestro.” The Wall Street Journal, 16 December 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.
11 “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” Filmtracks, 3 November 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.
12 Walker, Andrew. “Faces of the Week.” BBC News| UK| Magazine, 16 December 2005. Web. 16 June 2012.
13 Ware, Michael. “Tintin and John Williams, an Essay on a Film about Self-Respect.” Film Score Monthly, 24 December 2011. Web. 16 June 2012.
14 Keegan, Rebecca. “A Blockbuster Collaboration.” Los Angeles Times, 8 Jan 2012. Web. 16 June 2012.