(2008) dir. Maria Lindberg
viewed: 01/04/09 at the San Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, CA
In skimming the local paper as I am wont to do for things of interest and goings on in the Bay Area, I had the chance to stumble upon the fact that a “Moomin” movie was playing over the weekend in San Rafael. Extremely surprised, but pleased, I wrangled up the kids and we trucked on up to San Rafael to the Film Center to see what they had here to offer. Web research didn’t tell me much about the film other than it came out last year and that it was a Finnish production. The kids were beside themselves with excitment.
For the uninitiated, Moomin is a troll, a family of trolls, moomintrolls to be exact, that were created by the Finnish author/artist/cartoonist Tove Jansson starting in the 1940’s and carrying on into the 1970’s in a series of children’s novels and a wonderous comic strip published in an English newspaper. Her artwork is sublime and I’d go on about it but I have already if you’d like to see, in my other blog Kennelco Blabber. A friend had long recommended them, but after stumbling on the re-printed comics last year, my kids and I have been on a Moomin odyssey, reading all the comics and all the books, which they have enjoyed immensely. And while this is pretty obscure in the U.S., my understanding is that in Europe, they are almost as ubiquitous as Tintin or perhaps even more. And they are wonderful.
So, anyways, the kids couldn’t have been more excited over a Moomintroll movie. The film played only twice, both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm at the San Rafael Film Center, a part of a series of children’s films from around the world that they are showing through May. The man who headed the program proudly introduced the film, showing a lack of knowledge, thinking that Jansson was Danish and also a man, for instance. So, also in the program, comparing this film to the release of a new Disney feature was also misleading (as was the statement that it would be shown with subtitles). Anyways, no matter how confused they got it, they got it, and I figured, “When will this opportunity arise again?”
The film is an honest adaptation of Moominsummer Madness, a good book, which we enjoyed. The animation looked to be stop-motion with 3-D cut-outs, but it’s hard to say these days with digital animation being what it is, being able to mimic styles and designs. It did seem like traditional 3-D to me, with the figures made of soft material and when characters had hair, it looked like fuzzy yarn. The animation of things like a volcano erupting were done with simple effects. Aesthetically, it was fine, not ideal perhaps, but I don’t know what ideal would have been.
In my opinion the animation was not “cinematic” quality (take that for what you will, I know it’s a debatable point). It felt like television. And with the voice-over and dubbing, the film also reminded me of narratives from children’s programming of today, like Maisy Mouse or Spot. The voices are gentle and comforting, and on television, the productions are made with care and effort, aimed at young viewers, soft as soft can be. And for little children, which mine once were and are moving away from, there is merit in this. And what I’m trying to say is that it’s not bad. It’s just not particularly impressive.
But this is a feature-length film, a full Moomin narrative, with the whimsy and characters of the stories. The beauty in Jansson’s work is both that of fantasy and play, but also an idealized Finnland where the Moomintrolls live and adventure. There is social commentary, but the point is more that of the story. As Jansson got older, the stories became slower and the ideas a bit more elevated, harder for my kids to follow. This story stays on the level that keeps them involved. A volcano erupts, sending a flood to Moominvalley, forcing the family to take residence in a floating theater. When Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden become separated, a couple of stories go out in different directions, evenutally merging in a nonsense performance.
The designs lack Jansson’s beautiful ink-drawing illustrations, which are some of her finest elements. The film is somewhat limp in its take on the story, too gentle perhaps, even with the ever-gentle Moomins. The Moomins are gentle, but they are also often plagued with frustrations and self-doubt and even the parents can be quite bumbling and lost. Part of the stories’ charms are in the weird antangonisms and relationships with quirky personalities who are accepted in their excentricities.
My advice: Buy the books published by Drawn and Quarterly of the comic strips for one. They are remarkable and amazing cartoon art. Read Comet in Moominland, my favorite of the novels, one of the first, also one of the best-illustrated. Embark on Moomin adventures. And if you become hooked enough, or your children do, then this film is fine. It’s not the place to start, nor is it the place to end. And Jansson is a wonderful thing to discover. The Finns have right to be proud of her!
But the San Rafael Film Center ought to at least Wikipedia its material. C’mon! It doesn’t take a crash course in Neuroscience to get some answers!