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THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN – John Williams

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I think you have to be Belgian, or at least a Francophone, to fully appreciate all the subtleties and nuances of Tintin. Created by the Belgian artist and author Georges Rémi under his pen name Hergé, the character first appeared in print in 1929 and went on to appear in 23 adventure novels spanning a 46-year period up until 1975, followed by the posthumous publication of a final story in 1986, three years after Hergé’s death. Not only that, the stories have been adapted for radio, theatre, and a popular 1960s animated television show with its famous voiceover proclaiming that you are watching “Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin!” Despite all that, and for reasons I have never fully understood I was never a fan of the franchise – unlike Hollywood giant Steven Spielberg, who is not a Francophone, but who is adapting the story for its first major big screen adventure using state of the art-motion capture technology.

The plot of the film – which combines elements of three of Hergé’s stories (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure) – concerns a young reporter named Tintin (Jamie Bell), his dog Snowy, and his friend Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who discover a series of clues left by Haddock’s ancestor Sir Francis Haddock, which could lead them to the hidden treasure of the pirate Red Rackham (Daniel Craig). In order to unravel the riddle, Tintin and Haddock must obtain three identical models of Sir Francis’ ship, the Unicorn, but discover that criminals are also after these model ships, and are willing to kill in order to obtain them. The film is co-produced by Peter Jackson, who first championed the use of motion-capture technology through his Lord of the Rings films, and is the first animated film Spielberg has ever directed.

Of course, with Spielberg at the helm, the film also heralds the return to the film score world of John Williams, an event that has been breathlessly anticipated by score fans since the release of Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May 2008. It’s been a long 3½ years to wait for new music from the now 79-year old maestro, especially for those who remember when he would score three or four films a year for the greater part of a decade. Not that he hasn’t been busy – he wrote an original piece for Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president in 2009, as well as a trio of concertos for viola, harp and oboe, and has continued to conduct his concert series at the Hollywood Bowl – but considering his age and reputation, new film scores from him will always be momentous occasions, and this is no exception.

If one was to resort to broad generalizations, one could say that The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is Williams’ lost fourth Harry Potter score, infused with hints of stylish Gallic-flavored jazz. That’s not to say that Tintin is in any way unoriginal – on the contrary, there are some wholly original and entirely unexpected pieces on the score – but instead it is a score which is immediately and entirely steeped in the stuff that makes Williams great, and which will appeal to fans across all his compositional styles. For example the opening cue, “The Adventures of Tintin”, which introduces Tintin’s undulating motif, is influenced by his progressive jazz style, a wild and effervescent combination of The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, and the Cantina Band from Star Wars, filtered through a set of Euro-flavored orchestrations including an accordion, harpsichord, muted clarinets, tubular bells, and lots more besides. It reminds listeners that, before anything else, Johnny Williams was a jazz man, and he’s lost none of his flair and knack for that style of writing.

Things soon move into more familiar territory with “Snowy’s Theme”, which is a direct descendent of his cheerful and playful Harry Potter music, by way of “Jim’s New Life” from Empire of the Sun, albeit with a much more florid piano motif. This cue also introduces one of the score’s defining features – the constant sense of movement and fluidity that encompasses the entire ensemble, flowing, jumping from section to section, passing melodies across the orchestra, never resting. It’s not quite music in the Carl Stalling style in that Williams never gets involved in the classic Mickey Mousing that Stalling did so wonderfully, but Williams certainly goes out of his way to recapture Stalling’s colorful style, his endless motion, and his way of bringing a multitude of different instruments to the fore in each cue. If anyone ever doubted that Williams, at nearly 80 years old, was in danger of losing his touch or didn’t have the energy to write music of such life and grace and skill, the music heard here will allay those concerns in an instant.

Snowy’s Theme, like Hedwig’s Theme from the Potter scores, is a recurring presence throughout the score, appearing during the second half of the vaguely Middle Eastern and quite mysterious “The Secret of the Scrolls”, “Snowy’s Chase”, the central section of “Marlinspike Hall”, and many more besides. Appropriately, Tintin’s theme and Snowy’s theme tend to play in parallel to each other, and regularly feature side-by-side in the same cue, cementing the solid friendship between the boy and his dog. “The Secret of the Scrolls” also introduces the recurring rising motif that seems to signify the mystery at the heart of the story. It’s similar in approach to the Ark theme Williams wrote for Raiders of the Lost Ark back in the early 1980s, and receives its most glorious statement at the end of “Red Rackham’s Curse and the Treasure”.

The final main theme is the theme for Tintin’s best non-canine friend, Captain Haddock, which has an appropriately nautical flavor suited for adventure on the high seas. Haddock’s theme first appears in its fullest form in “Captain Haddock Takes the Oars” performed on vaguely comical bass clarinets, but is harmonically linked to the undulating theme for Sir Francis Haddock, Captain Haddock’s ancestor whose lost treasure is at the core of the story. This theme actually appears in the preceding cue, the wonderful “Sir Francis and the Unicorn”, playing in counterpoint against several rousing statements of the mystery theme for heroic horns and tremolo-laden strings.

The action music, of which there is a significant amount, will be the aspect that collectors latch onto the most, and in these cues Williams really shines. Tracks such as the breathlessly exciting “Escape from the Karaboudjan”, the rollicking buccaneering adventure of “Sir Francis and the Unicorn”, and the sensational pair of “The Pursuit of the Falcon” and “The Clash of the Cranes” contain some of the most vivacious and energetic action material Williams has written in many years. One minute the strings are churning away, then a second later the woodwinds will chime in with a little phrase, whooping and diving, before the percussion section takes over with a timpani rhythm that catches the ear… it’s wonderfully overwhelming, the way the music jumps so rapidly around the different sections of the orchestra, giving them all a moment to shine. Most important, however, is the way in which Williams always works in clear and identifiable statements of his themes within the fabric of the action material, maintaining the score’s identity. He has, of course, been doing this for years and years, and even today virtually no-one does it better.

Listen for the moody, almost Jurassic Park-ish suspense chords in “Marlinspike Hall”, the awesome flutter-tongued brass runs in “Escape from the Karaboudjan”, the effortlessly inventive dancing violin ostinati in “Red Rackham’s Curse and the Treasure” which recall Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s best swashbuckling music filtered through Williams’s own score for Hook, the interplay between heroic variations of Tintin’s theme and Haddock’s theme in the astonishingly fast-paced “The Flight to Bagghar”, and dozens and dozens of other moments of instrumental creativity too numerous to mention. The flighty woodwind writing in “The Pursuit of the Falcon” will remind listeners of parts of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the rhythmic string performances in that cue are sensational too.

There is more jazz to be heard, too, in the comedic and lugubrious “Introducing the Thompsons” – which, oddly, has echoes of the Imperial March in its melodic line – or the snakelike “Capturing Mr. Silk”, the central melody of which has a most unexpected resemblance to the tuba theme Williams wrote for Jabba the Hutt on Return of the Jedi. There is also an evocative romance sequence for a swooning solo violin and stereotypical Gallic orchestrations in “The Milanese Nightingale”, and even a piece of bel canto opera in “Presenting Bianca Castafiore”, in which renowned soprano Renee Fleming follows a lushly re-orchestrated version of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville with an aria from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, breaking a stack of champagne flutes on the conclusive high note!

The final two cues, “The Return to Marlinspike Hall and Finale” and “The Adventure Continues”, recapitulate much of the film’s thematic material in near-concert style, with the Mystery theme, Tintin’s theme, Snowy’s theme, and Haddock’s theme all getting their moments at center stage, albeit interspersed with some more sinister atmospherics, before a series of virtuoso settings of the violin ostinato from “Red Rackham’s Curse and the Treasure” bring the album to a wholly satisfying close, complete with the now-traditional fake-out ending that Williams works into many of his suites.

Listening to The Adventures of Tintin, it really brings home what a masterful composer John Williams is. When you compare this score, with its multitude of themes, its harmonic complexity, its instrumental creativity, its orchestral brilliance, and its seemingly effortless charm, whimsy and memorability, to some of the scores slapped on this summer’s biggest studio blockbusters – well, there’s just no contest. It’s easy to take him for granted, considering that legendary tunes seem to flow out of him like water from a spring, but what Williams brings to the table in terms of his understanding of what a film needs, and the way in which those needs are converted into music, is second to none. With the film music world having lost Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, and several others, it’s a truly sobering thought to think that Williams is now one of the last surviving members of his musical generation, and as such we need to celebrate each new score he writes as if it was his last. We have The War Horse to look forward to later this year, and if all goes well Lincoln in 2012, and I’m sure they will be wonderful too, but as it stands The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is unquestionably one of the scores of the year.

Rating: *****

Buy the Adventures of Tintin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Adventures of Tintin (3:04)
  • Snowy’s Theme (2:10)
  • The Secret of the Scrolls (3:13)
  • Introducing the Thompsons and Snowy’s Chase (4:08)
  • Marlinspike Hall (3:59)
  • Escape from the Karaboudjan (3:21)
  • Sir Francis and the Unicorn (5:05)
  • Captain Haddock Takes the Oars (2:17)
  • Red Rackham’s Curse and the Treasure (6:10)
  • Capturing Mr. Silk (2:58)
  • The Flight to Bagghar (3:33)
  • The Milanese Nightingale (1:30)
  • Presenting Bianca Castafiore (3:28)
  • The Pursuit of the Falcon (5:43)
  • The Captain’s Counsel (2:10)
  • The Clash of the Cranes (3:48)
  • The Return to Marlinspike Hall and Finale (5:51)
  • The Adventure Continues (2:58)

Running Time: 65 minutes 49 seconds

Sony Classical 88697975882 (2011)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and John Neufeld. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams.

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  1. October 23, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Great review as always Jon :). Can’t wait for this one to arrive!

  2. Craig Lysy
    October 23, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Just outstanding Jon and as usual, penetrating insight!

  3. October 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Unfortunately the music in the actual movie gets overpowered by everything else, especially in the more comical sequences.
    Here’s my review

    http://wp.me/p19wJ2-ro

  4. October 28, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Very good review, Jon.

  1. December 23, 2012 at 4:33 pm
    John Williams, My Main Man « elcidharth

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