As Steven Spielberg's movie The Adventures of Tintin prepares to launch into theatres on Wednesday, American audiences may find themselves faced with a mystery within a mystery.
Who is Tintin?
English actor Jamie Bell, best known for playing the juvenile dancer in his feature debut film Billy Elliot (2000), provides the voice and the movement for the character through motion capture animation. In a phone interview from Montreal where he was doing advance publicity for the film, he acknowledges that while Tintin is a known quantity throughout Europe (and to a lesser extent in Canada), "I find that every American I speak to has no idea what I'm talking about."
"And that's fine. There was a time they didn't know who Shrek was and there was a time they didn't know who Wall-E was."
Of course, the truth is that even most Europeans who may have been raised on the 23 Belgian comic book-novels by Hergé that inspired the film may not have a handle on the specifics of the character, a boy sleuth who becomes embroiled in all manner of international intrigue alongside his loyal dog Snowy.
Is he a child or a man? How old is he? Does he have parents?
"When you really go to Tintin fans and start asking very simple questions like: Who is he?' they have no idea what to say," Bell says. "There is no concrete, definitive answer. He's ageless to a degree in the same way he is sexless. He is friendless, parentless. At least that's what we comprehend.
"He may have those things. He just doesn't show us those things."
That ageless ambiguity about the character played in Bell's favour though, when you consider that director Steven Spielberg first interviewed the 25-year-old Bell about 10 years ago.
"I think at the time, the movie was maybe going to be live action," Bell says. "They were still trying to figure out the medium of how to capture the aesthetic of Hergé and I don't think the technology was up to date."
The encounter with Spielberg left Bell breathless anyway.
"It's one of those moments where you're like: Oh God, don't mess it up, don't mess it up," he says. "The movie kind of went away, but it was a great meeting and it was really just fanboy mode for me to just shake the hand of the man who really kind of shaped and crafted my appreciation of film."
He was not alone in fanboy mode, he adds. Two of his co-stars, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, though they have gained a following of their own, were equally starstruck in the presence of Spielberg.
"For them to be on the set with Steven, it was a huge, massive deal, even to someone like Simon who's worked with J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise and has had a very respectable career of his own," Bell said. "He was reduced to a shaking 12-year-old boy."
It is not coincidental that the bulk of the film's cast, including Daniel Craig and Andy Serkis, were culled from Britain, Bell says.
"The casting of predominately British people is an interesting choice because there is something about the humour and the sensibility of Hergé that is quintessentially European," Bell says. "That needed to be upheld."
The Adventures of Tintin opens in theatres on Wednesday.