I think it's fairly safe to say that The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is the movie I've been anticipating the most this year - more even than the conclusion to the Harry Potter franchise. Part of this is to do with the fact that I grew up reading and loving Hergé's comics, as well as watching the Nelvana animated series (apparently there was an earlier series which was far worse and cheesier - this one is actually very faithful to the comics in terms of both story and animation style, often being panel-for-panel). Tintin is a reporter - not that he does much reporting, as he's usually too preoccupied going on some adventure or other, accompanied by his canine companion Milou (or Snowy in the translation) and the awesome Captain Haddock, creator of some of the best insults and exclamations ever penned ('Billions and millions of blue blistering barnacles!!!' is classic, and he's known to call those who invoke his ire 'australopithecus' or 'troglodyte'). Not only is the source material brilliant, however, but it's being adapted by some of my favorite Hollywood figures.
Steven Spielberg is also a fan of the comics, to such an extent that Tintin is part of the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. When I heard that he was the one helming the upcoming Tintin film, I was overjoyed - if there's one director who'd be able to do the series justice, it's him. And no George Lucas in sight to ruin things, either - Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame is producing, bringing with him special effects crew extraordinaire WETA (as well as Andy Serkis to play Captain Haddock - nice bit of casting there!). And Steven Moffat, the genius behind the latest Doctor Who series, is part of the writing team. Last, and certainly not least: where there's Steven Spielberg, there's John Williams, the greatest film composer of our age. What an astonishing assembly of talent!
Every score that John Williams writes is becoming progressively more and more precious. It truly pains me to say it, but he's getting a little long in the tooth, and his composing activites have slowed down tremendously, with the only score released within the last six years being Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. After such a long hiatus, expectations on him are staggeringly, almost impossibly high. So it is with enormous gladness (and, perhaps, a hint of relief) that I'm able to announce that John Williams is absolutely back, and has penned, if not a masterpiece, at the very least a fantastic score for Tintin - I cannot wait to hear how it works in context. The only way I could conceive of describing this album is with a cue-by-cue analysis, because every single track in this score contains, at the very least, an individual moment worth mentioning. Believe me when I say there isn't a dull moment to be heard.
The opening track will throw you for a loop. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I spun this CD for the first time, but it definitely wasn't the progressive jazz number that hits you in 'The Adventures of Tintin'. Once you get over that initial shock, however, it's hard not to start snapping your fingers to the infectuous energy of this cue (though it's not as raucous as the 'Knight Bus' cue from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, thankfully); the only score of Williams' I can think of that sounds remotely similar (other, perhaps, than his really early 'Johnny Williams' swing scores of the 60s and early 70s) is Catch Me If You Can. Thematically, Williams is already hard at work, subtly integrating theme for Tintin into the harpsichord part at 0:34 and elsewhere.
After that invigorating burst of unfamiliarness, we're back in more familiar territory with 'Snowy's Theme', a delightful scherzo along the lines of his first two Harry Potter scores. The music leaps all around the orchestra, with dizzyingly rapid string, woodwind and piano runs all playing off each other. It's absolutely vintage John Williams. In 'The Secret of the Scrolls', we hear the theme representing the film's mystery aspects unveiled in full. It is introduced in classic building fashion, evoking the same feeling of building mystery as the famous 'The Map Room: Dawn' cue from Raiders of the Lost Ark, though it's a far lighter tone here.
'Introducing the Thompsons' provides a comedic interlude for Thompson ('with a P, as in pneumonia') and Thomson ('without a P, as in Venezuela'), twin buffoonish bowler-wearing detectives who provide more comic relief than they do sleuthing skills ('If you think we're going to tell you he's smuggling aircraft, you can forget it! Mum's the word, that's our motto!'). The theme, played on accordeon, clarinet and trombone over a lurching low piano rhythm, borders on Mickey-mousing, but it represents the characters exceedingly well. The 'Snowy's Chase' cue that follows continues in the same scherzo vein as the second track. Suspenseful underscore littered with more statements of the mystery theme occupies much of 'Marlinspike Hall', perhaps not the most engaging cue on the album - though the sheer quality of the writing makes it much more interesting than it could have been.
'Escape from the Karaboudjan' (Tintin buffs like myself might be scratching their heads that the story apparently leaps from Marlinspike to the Karaboudjan - either that, or the score is out of film order) is the first outright action track on the album, and it's abundantly clear that Williams has lost none of his touch in that arena either. I'd love to see the looks on the trumpet players' faces when they're handed parts that require them to play as many notes as humanly possible within a second (check out 0:38!). The adventure theme gets its first outright brass statements here, too, starting at 0:17. Seasoned Williams listeners will get a kick out of the bass drum hits followed by cymbal crashes (boom TSH) at the cue's climax.
The score's only choral moment opens 'Sir Francis and the Unicorn', giving way to a mystery theme crescendo that reaches its full glory at 1:35, complete with resounding timpani backing. A series of pulsating, interlocking string lines begins at 2:14 and occupies much of the rest of the cue (along with almost gratuitous use of the 'boom TSH'). A hint of Korngoldian flair is on display here, which is appropriate given the scene. Williams' endlessly creative instrumental use is on permanent display, extending to a menacing pipe organ in the background at the end of the cue - a humorous tip of the hat to Hans Zimmer's use of the instrument in recent seafaring adventures, perhaps?
Captain Haddock's theme is introduced in 'Haddock Takes the Oars', 'a theme that sounds like it's from the bottom of a bottle' to quote Steven Spielberg's liner note. It's an off-kilter waltz for bass woodwinds, used for comic effect in this cue. Hints of the Korngoldian writing from earlier give way to a memorable scherzo in 'Red Rackham's Curse and the Treasure', bursting into life at 2:24 with all the galloping fun of the similar 'Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra' from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - it's full of call-and-response moments between the upper and lower ranges of the orchestra. An enormous statement of a singular Oriental-tinged brass theme at the end of that cue is a possible tip of the hat to Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia.
The lighter, jazz-laced tone from the beginning of the album returns in 'Capturing Mr. Silk', with more quotations of the Thompsons' theme bracketing some great clarinet and accordeon work reminiscent of The Terminal. 'The Flight to Bagghar' then provides the highlight of the album's lighter side, switching between straight action music and lurching statements of Haddock's theme - though in a way that allows everything to flow well. Perhaps here more so than in any other cue, the orchestra is really put through its paces. Then, out of nowhere, Michael Giacchino's Ratatouille is channeled in the brief but delightful 'The Milanese Nightingale', a jazzy cue absolutely saturated with Gallic stereotypes (though he brings things back on course with a fleeting statement of the mystery theme at the end).
'Presenting Bianca Castafiore' is a source-like cue that most film score listeners will want to skip. It includes snippets of Rossini and Gounod operatic arias, performed in an appropriately over-the-top fashion by Renée Fleming. The cue culminates with the shattering of glass - not exactly listenable, but anybody familiar with the comics will burst out laughing. It's pitch-perfect for the character, but it's admittedly out of place in the context of the rest of the score. Williams actually interpolates bits of the Rossini in the opening of 'The Pursuit of the Falcon', another top-notch action cue peppered with statements of the mystery and adventure themes. Haddock's theme, mainly comic relief up until now, is given enticing development (mirroring the character's) in 'The Captain's Counsel', morphing into a slower, nobler idea. 'The Clash of the Cranes' features a lurching timpani rhythm in its first minute to represent those cranes, before reverting to the lighter mode at the end with Tintin, Haddock and the Thompsons' motifs all making cameos.
'The Return to Marlinspike Hall and Finale' is surprisingly subdued underscore for a climax, but it does appropriately end the score proper with one last grandiose crescendo of the mystery theme. 'The Adventure Continues' is Williams' obligatory concert piece for Tintin, and it's an extension of the scherzo from 'Red Rackham's Curse and the Treasure' with not just one, but two trademark false endings! While it's a great cue and probably the album's best, one does wonder why it doesn't include any of the score's themes.
And that leads me to the only criticism I feel I can level against Williams here: he hasn't composed any knockout themes. Don't get me wrong; his attention to motivic detail is spectacular (for instance, Tintin's theme and the mystery theme are structurally similar, indicating that this is his story), but there isn't a Raider's March, a Hedwig's Theme, an instantly memorable idea that will go down in the annals of pop culture as synonymous with the concept - and this is the only thing holding him back from a perfect rating. This is very much the modern Williams at work, eschewing straightforward set-pieces and themes in favor of stupendously complicated, scene-specific writing that is perfectly synchronized to the film, abundant with personality and a technical marvel. The problem with this is that it might flit around a bit too much on album for some listeners. If you were to call this score million-dollar Mickey-mouse music, I'd disagree, but I would know where you're coming from.
That issue aside, however, Tintin is an awesome score. It is simply wonderful to hear the maestro back on the podium with material that sounds so fresh, invigorating and energetic. Multiple listens to this score will only increase your appreciation for it, as some of the less obvious thematic development becomes apparent. It may not be a classic, but it will entertain you from beginning to end, and that's more than enough for me. Let's hope that Spielberg's film manages to spawn a franchise, and that 'The Adventure Continues' for him, for the bequiffed reporter and for John Williams. Hats off, Maestro, and looking forward to hearing you in The War Horse!