Discovering the Moomins, a storybook universe created by Finnish artist Tove Jansson in the early-mid 20th century was, to me, like opening a previously unseen door to a previously unknown way of being.
The books were ostensibly for kids, but I’d say barely. The complexity and Nordic undercurrents make them a satisfying and unorthodox read for adults. Jansson was first and foremost an artist, gay when it was illegal in Finland, and illustrated magazine covers for anti-fascist magazines during the rise of Hitler. In fact it’s said that the Moomins’ world was her artistic response to war, a humanistic, idealistic antidote to despair and thugs on the march. In that world, friends are friends, adventures are to be had, predators are few, respect and kindness (but not necessarily over-sentimentality, this is Finland after all) is valued, and you can always find another bed in your house for a guest, even an odd one.
The atmosphere is understated but very specific, one that quivers with elusive qualities just under the surface - most strongly felt in the original stories and illustrations, somewhat less so in the good but uneven 90s animated TV series - that are hard to pin down but add up to a immersive experience if you’re open to it. It’s an atmosphere that’s at times thorny but never truly scary, fun but not saccharine, communal-minded but not kumbaya. Infused with nature’s power that can turn surprisingly dark: storms, floods, a comet, encroaching winter personified by the menacing Groke. The way characters talk, interact, and respond to both crises and joys has a deeply human, non-cheesy essence without seeming to try too hard to do so.
So I was eagerly anticipating the new Moomins series, called Moominvalley, that began production last year in Finland. I backed their Indiegogo campaign and followed the progress of development. The production team seemed to be pledging proper allegiance to the guiding spirit of the original work, and Jansson’s niece was involved. I almost went up to NY to catch the US premiere at an animation festival.
But I had some concerns as well. My daughter and I are maybe too used to the original drawings and the character voices of the 90s series. The voices they were hiring for the English versions were exclusively British, which I worried could undermine the eccentric northern-ness of it all. The animation was computer-generated 3D, which looked lush and evocative but also a bit too perfect, much like, say, the Backyardigans with a softer color palette.
This week I received the entire season one as a perk for being a backer. Last night we gathered to give episode one a chance to be its own thing.
I’m sad to report it was a near-total failure. I don’t say that as a critic looking to be snarky. I say it as someone who desperately wanted to like it, even if it was different. We all went to bed in silence afterward, maybe it says everything that we didn’t want to say a word about it.
The main sin was a complete swing-and-miss at capturing Jansson’s spirit. I watched the familiar characters moving around and saying and doing things, and was utterly unmoved. The story/writing was weak, disjointed, and felt disconnected from the original material. Like a committee decided to write their own story that vaguely echoed Jansson’s. (There were also annoying small things, like why is Little My sitting on an open paint can?)
It wasn’t funny. It tried to be somewhat zany/madcap presumably to grab our attention.
The character voices were slightly different-sounding British accents that made no real effort to be a ‘character’, it was just the actors’ natural voices. The effect overall was to flatten out most of the personalities. Except for Little My, who resembled the Little My of the books but was overdone; a caricature and not a very endearing one, even for her ornery, mischievous self.
The vaunted new animation, which should have been a redeeming strength, was supposed to evoke Jansson’s painterly style and colors, and ramp up the paradise-quotient. Which it does, a bit. But within the first few moments, my daughter complained “it’s too perfect”.
Overall, my takeaway was: this is what happens when a team approach inadvertently dampens the singular vision of an artist, in favor of commercial viability. Or maybe that Jansson’s particular artistic sensibility was simply too long ago, fading into the past, and even a well-intentioned creative group trying to carry the torch couldn’t fully grasp - let alone reimagine successfully - the true nature of that vision. Or maybe I’m a curmudgeon, I hope not.
I mean, in short, to me it was shockingly off-base. I didn’t think they’d get it this wrong. Pretty but pastiche at best. I’m sure some people will like it, it’s harmless enough and looks nice in a modern way. Maybe the next episodes will get better*. Personally as a fan I couldn’t find one thing to truly resonate with. Maybe the originals are too precious to me and I can’t get around that. I feel bad for the production crew, I’m sure they did their best and were excited about it.
But wow, what an initial let-down at least. I asked my daughter (age 13) today for her reaction, she said she was actually ok with the voices, but overall “I was so disappointed, so sad that I don’t like it. I didn’t want to even keep watching it.”
*[UPDATE] We did decide to stick with it and it does get somewhat better after episode one. I still say that first episode is inexplicably poor, especially to kick off the series, and I stand by my critique. But after watching a couple more, things seem to be stabilizing a bit. Still uneven narratively, still way too British, still too Nickolodean-channel in the visuals. But after that abysmal start there’s been a noticeable uptick in the Tove Jansson influence. Some attempts to be true to the literary source material and characterizations but other times they’re making up chunks of the story out of whole cloth, or making fairly huge changes that seem kind of pointless (meaning that don’t make it better).
Seems they’re not sure how much to trust the original work, and how much to create something new that will please today’s viewers. Which is understandable. If you’re making it for existing fans who may be Tove Jansson purists, they might not be as interested in the writing team’s own creative detours. If you’re making it for those who are new to Moomins, I’m not sure how they would really ‘get’ any of it anyway.
My daughter and I admitted maybe we’re at least getting used to it. Not ready yet to say we like it, but we’re still watching.