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Home Blog Features Home Videos: Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn (1991)
Home Videos: Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn (1991) Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 31 May 2011 13:33

In the weekly rummage through the vat of VHS tapes in my attic, I recently came across something rather exciting: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. "Surely this must be worth something!" I thought, heading to the internet. A quick check round Amazon later, and people were selling their "Collector's Edition" copies of Tintin for £3.75. So much for that then.



It's no surprise that it's not worth a lot: this is the 1991 American animated Tintin, not the original 1959 Belvision series. Ever since the American Tintin cartoons appeared on DVD, people have been complaining about the lack of Belvision videos, which used to get shown in 5 minute chunks, with most of the runtime taken up by Pete Dawkins booming out the words "Hergé's Adventures of Tintin!" at the start.

With this version, we start off with a far more generic theme tune by Ray Parker. It's a pleasant enough opening, if you're prepared to shout your own Dawkins-style introduction over the top:



Then again, it's not as if the Belvision show was the first screen version of Tintin. That honour goes to a bizarre little oddity, a 1947 stop-motion tale, The Crab with the Golden Claws. It goes a little something like this:



It's worth remembering the title of that one, because along with The Secret of the Unicorn, The Crab with the Golden Claws is one of the Tintin tales being used by Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg for their Tintin film. Needless to say, neither Speilberg's motion-capture animation nor the 1991 American TV show feature stop-motion puppets with oversized moustaches. But once you get over that disappointment, there's a lot of fun to be had with the cartoon version.

One thing that remains striking is the consistency in the depiction of Tintin. Even with the stop-motion puppets, the faithful rendition of Hergé's simple artwork makes Tintin instantly recognisable. It's partly that iconic quiff, but the eyebrows are the real key. They convey Tintin's expressions (ranging from shock and surprise to a startled combination of the two) while the rest of his face stays pretty much the same. Which is probably a good thing, judging by the dead-eyed CGI look of Spielberg's Tintin trailer.




The costume, too, is always the same, from the trench coat and blue jumper to the white open-necked shirt. You could even argue that Tintin's fashion sense has inspired future detectives throughout the generations.


I may just be imagining this one.


I say detective, because that's clearly what Tintin is, despite his official job title of journalist. Throughout The Secret of the Unicorn, as wallets get stolen by a pickpocket and hidden treasure maps turn up in model ships, our hero doesn't once sit down to write a news story, or even contact his (seemingly non-existent) employer. He just runs around with his dog, slowly realising that maybe something serious is going on.

Still, it's high risk stuff being Tintin. One minute you're standing there with your eyebrows raised, the next you're halted in your investigations by something as dangerous as an occupied phone booth - a moment of great dramatic tension.



Colin O'Meara does well to deal with the occasionally duff dialogue given to him, the majority of which is just exposition. "What's this?" "Why? What does that mean?" he says aloud to himself (or to loyal dog Snowy), building up to the most laboured of all: "I think I've discovered a hidden storage room!"

At least co-director Stephen Bernasconi keeps the picture quality simple, matching Hergé's clear line style. Hergé was presumably pleased with the way the 1991 show continued his tradition of effective visual storytelling. When these two men, for example, walk on to the screen near the beginning of the episode at a harmless street fair, you can almost guarantee that they're evil:



In fact, Tintin's world is pretty rough and ready, what with all the evil men, wallet-snatchings, drive-by shootings and occasional chloroform attacks. It's no L.A. Noire, but this is pretty action-packed stuff for a kids show. Tintin even gets to throw a few punches. Fans of hard-boiled crime can relax, though, because there are still plenty of hats to enjoy.


All in a day's work.


With such high-octane action sequences, it's a good job that lookalike detectives Thompson and Thomson are on hand to provide the plucky comic relief:



And then there's Captain Haddock. The most colourful character in the books, vocalist David Fox makes sure his time on screen is spent yelling random catchphrases with a gravelly piece of ham lodged firmly in his throat.

Blistering barnacles, thundering tycoons and thunderous thunderclouds all get several outings, but his range of insults are what really impress: "You troglodyte!" he shouts at one, before labelling another an ectomorph. It's exactly what you want from a drunken sea captain.



Haddock's also the main source of backstory in The Secret of the Unicorn. His ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, duelled with Red Rackham the pirate before blowing his ship up and losing track of his treasure. It's a typical globe-trotting plot for Tintin (suited to Spielberg's upcoming adaptation), and one that also allows Captain Haddock to jump around the room reenacting the sword fight.

In fact, the sight of him running around with a pirate hat on is enough to warrant one of the TV show's token cliffhanger moments, which are exactly identical.


The Tintin Cliffhanger Formula:


As a kidnapped (and choloformed) Tintin is rescued by Haddock, the stage is set for an expedition on the seven seas to find Red Rackham's Treasure. Which, conveniently enough, is the title of the second half of the two-part story. Which means that all we're left with is the knowledge that Red Rackham looks like this:



Will Tintin and Captain Haddock find Red Rackham's Treasure? Will Thompson and Thomson get their wallets stolen again? What hat will Snowy wear next?

To find out what happens next in Hergé's Adventures of Tintin, you'll have to wait until December for Tintin 3D to hit cinemas. Or just buy your own Tintin VHS for £3. It's actually rather worth it.


  • home videos
  • peter jackson
  • steven spielberg
  • tintin
  • vhs