Film adaptations are a difficult prospect. How much to keep, what will translate well enough to the alternative media, how to avoid deforming and misusing the original source and its intentions. Especially in childrens media/culture, it is common for a screen adaptation to become lighter and unnecessarily softer, removing things that would be seen as “too depressing”/”scary”. Though certain subjects, or their presentation, may be problematic for children, it is still a fact that life itself is quite messy and at times unpleasant and saying otherwise to kids is just a gratuitous and deceitful deviation from the real. On top of that, children by nature are curious and often quite philosophical, and the world being the chaotic place that it is will lead to children experiencing things like death, divorce, bullying etc. to which literature can offer help in coping and understanding these issues. This inclination goes a long way to explaining why the “Moomins”-books, that are chock-full of philosophy and curiosity, have been so poorly adapted when it comes to cartoons and films. Therefore it is no small pleasure to say that in 2014, a fantastic adaption was made of the Moomin comic strip, “Moomins At The Riviera”.
The Moomin series started out as novels and comic strips, created by Tove Jansson who wrote the original eight novels, and add-ons, following the Moomin family and their friends. The novels delved into a slew of issues, including death, morality, family, loneliness and middle age crises. The characters who were primarily focused on were the naïve yet kindhearted Moomintroll, the wise, gentle Moominmamma, the angry adopted sister Little My, Moomintrolls vain yet tough girlfriend Snorkmaiden, and the proud Moominpappa. The comics, outside of the novel series, were initially written by Tove Jansson, and then later were run by her brother Lars Jansson. The comic strip was massively popular in England and Japan, and is regarded to this day as Finland’s most popular comic strip. However, inside of the Moomin-fandom they are slightly controversial; some fans love them, some fans dislike them and feel like the novels are fair superior. There is also a third camp (in which I am in) that feel like the comics are at times great, at times lacking.
The animated film “Moomins at the Riviera” (2014) is based on a comic strip arch that satirized class and social norms, but the comic arch suffered from a poorly written Moomintroll – he was written as a bit possessive and unkind to Snorkmaiden in the original comic strip. The animated film adaption keeps the satirical elements, while also improving on the character development.
As the film begins, the viewer is introduced to the Moomins and their friends. Life in their valley is relaxed, tolerant, and blissfully tranquil. However Snorkmaiden reads about a fancy hotel in a magazine, and after telling the rest of the gang about the fantastic place she´s read about, they decide to embark on an adventure to find this hotel. When they get there, it turns out that their adventure becomes more of a misadventure. Snorkmaiden gets caught up in the superficial glamour, Moominpappa gets swept up in his own pride and neglects his family, and Moomintroll after seeing Snorkmaiden flirt with others feels abused and abandoned. It is only Moominmamma who keeps her head high, trying to help her depressed son and other lonely creatures at the hotel. As Moominmamma points out: “If only this place wasn´t such a bad influence on us”.
While the humor and the characters are as loveable as in their book and comic counterparts, what makes this movie a wondrous continuation of the series (and also watchable to people not familiar with this franchise) is it´s witty, intelligent social commentary. At the films beginning the viewer is introduced to an honest, straightforward narration to the family´s philosophy. This is laid out in in the story line through a brief encounter with a lively band of self-proclaimed pirates. Moominmamma mistakes their feverish search through their home as a hunt for a missing “treasure” chest of tropical seeds she had found, while, in reality, and of course, the pirates were scavenging for the booty of a chest of gold. Moominmammas honest confusion at the pirates disregard for the seeds is comical, but also speaks volumes of the alternative lifestyle the Moomins live; that is, one not consumed by wealth or focused on the materialistic.
In the film version of “Moomins At The Riviera”, while being residence at the hotel, the gang for the first time has to cope with real judgment for their ways and mannerism. They are constantly too clumsy, too obscene, they don´t have the right clothing etc. Snorkmaiden however learns to blend in and Moominpappa is befriended by man from a high class family who´s impressed with Moominpappas “boheme” lifestyle. However Moomintroll becomes more and more helpless as Snorkmaiden becomes enamored with someone else.
A clear rift is driven between the individuals of the Moomin band, yet despite this wedge sundering to the group Moominmamma and Moomintroll try their best to rekindle their old life. Moomintroll tries to woe Snorkmaiden with a boat trip, Moominmamma tries to help a dog who has an unfortunate fondness for cats. In one beautifully written scene, Moomintroll falls into a deep melancholy when he once again gets dogged by Snorkmaiden and ends up just sulking by himself. Moominmamma tries to engage Moominpappa in this, telling him “our son is a little down, maybe you could give him some advice?” which Moominpappa hand waves away as Moomintroll just being “philosophical”. With such simplicity the pain of the rift is made clear; popularity and outward glamour have in fact corrupted them.
It is also in Snorkmaidens and Moomintrolls conflict where the film becomes a superior production to the original comic. In the comic strips arch, Moomintroll has a tendency to get angry when Snorkmaiden wants to go to parties and has a habit to belittle her (which he never did in the books). However in the animated film production, he supports her desire to go to the hotel and doesn´t demean her as in the comics. Additionally his jealousy is explored more as a symptom born of his insecurities in light of his girlfriend openly flirting with strangers, as well as the hotel’s general alienating nature. In other words, he is more like the lovable Moomintroll from the books, which gets the audiences sympathy even in his more flawed moments.
The film, on top of its family dynamics and life style philosophy, also focuses sharply upon the issue of class. The Moomins are read by the hotels celebrities as poor due to their lack of knowledge of fancy food, of their lack of materials and appearance. This assumption creates a hostile attitude, but also naïve admiration; Moominpappa impresses a man from a well-to-do family who wants to “suffer for his art” and live as “the poor”, however he quickly abandons this notion when he lives upon common food for a day, and endeavors to sleeps outside for one night. His one day experiment in downward mobility ends with his exclamation “I´ve lived in poverty quite enough now”. This satire of the exotification of poverty is quick biting, and spot on.
“Moomins at the Riviera” is a fantastic film that loyal Moomin-fans and casual viewers will both love. The atmosphere is gentle despite the satire, the characters are instantly loveable and the themes resonate in an international tone. A must watch.