Original Moomin comics make bid for global movie stardom

One of Finland’s most beloved exports, internationally renowned comic characters the Moomins, took a new shot at international feature film stardom on the weekend. A French-Finnish co-production, 'Moomins on the Riviera' premiered in London on Saturday. It’s the first animated feature film to be based directly on the popular Moomin comic strips created by Swedish-Finnish artist and writer Tove Jansson.   

Image: © 2012 Handle Productions Oy, Pictak Cie © Moomin Characters™

While the Moomins -- the loveable characters first created by Tove Jansson in 1945 -- are a global brand that has been parlayed into merchandise, animated TV series and movies, much of the creative energy has hitherto centred on recreating or extending the books or the TV adaptations. Up until now, the original comics had never been directly adapted for the silver screen.

In the new animated film Moomins on the Riviera, based on the comic of the same name, French director Xavier Picard and Finnish producer and co-director Hanna Hemilä bring to life a tale of the joys of a simple life over a glitzier one. The moneyed and famous are also on the receiving end of some good humoured digs.

“The Moomin characters celebrate freedom, optimism, cross-cultural understanding and tolerance,” says Picard, who was on hand in Helsinki for the October premiere of Moomins on the Riviera, which has original voice tracks in Finnish, Swedish and English.

Nordic melancholy meets French joie de vivre on the centenary of Jansson’s birth

Though the original comic strip upon which the film is based was written more than half a century ago, on the heels of the Second World War, like so much of Jansson’s work, it remains topical. Among the issues it addresses is the human desire to fit in and be accepted, while struggling to remain true to your own values.

When Moominpappa arrives on the French Riviera and meets Marquis Mongaga, a wealthy French aristocrat with artistic ambitions; he introduces his family as “de Moomins.” The Moomins’ aspirational “de” lands the family in the top suite at the fancy Le Grand hotel, a decidedly different world from their down-to-the earth home in Moominvalley.

While young Snorkmaiden is drawn to the glamorous lifestyle by playboy Clark Tresco and movie star Audrey Glamour (English-language voice by Shelly Blond, who was first voice actress for Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider game), Moomin and the rest of the family struggle with the Riviera’s over-the-top luxury.

Bringing old-school to the big screen

Picard and award-winning Finnish producer Hanna Hemilä had known each other for many years when the opportunity arose in 2010 to present the idea to Hemilä’s good friend Sophia Jansson. Sophia Jansson is niece to Tove Jansson and head of the family company holding licensing rights to the Moomins, Moomin Characters Oy.

“Sophia felt bad that nothing was being done with the original comic strips,” Hemilä says. “I discussed the idea with Xavier, who was so excited that he jumped onto a plane and we put together a pilot as quickly as we could,” she says.

“I think it was important to have an international team. The Moomins are part of the lexicon here in Finland, but they are not as well known to an international audience and we wanted the film to have international appeal,” says Hemilä.

Picard, in turn, was introduced to the Moomins in Japan many years ago through his colleague Japanese producer Takashi Masunaga. Their animation production company Pictak works with leading international 2D and 3D studios; notable credits include animated films such as Marcelino, Valerian and Odd Family.

“The Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson are very unique works of art,” says Picard, highlighting some of the difficulties of bringing the 1940s illustrations to life.

One of the biggest challenges was colour direction.

“To find colour from a comic strip was very difficult and in the end a hand-drawn paper animation technique was used to recreate the movement of Jansson’s original pencil drawings,” says Picard.

International voices

The Finnish and Swedish-language versions feature a star-studded cast of Finnish and Swedish-speaking Finnish actors including Maria Sid, Mats Långbacka and Irina Björklund, who perform the voice work in both languages for each character they portray. The English-language version casts British actors including Tracey Ann Obermann, Nathaniel Parker and Russell Tovey in the lead roles.

Picard says that his ambition was to extend the work of Jansson without betraying it and keep in mind her thought: “Live in peace, plant potatoes and dream.”

Is the animated movie intended for kids or adults? “It’s made for children and for the child that exists within each adult,” replies Picard.

Initially published in the 1940s, Jansson’s comics went on to appear in newspapers around the world until the mid-70s. At their height, Jansson’s strips satirising modern life (her brother Lars Jansson co-authored and drew them in later years) were published in 40 different countries and had a readership of more than 20 million people.