REVIEW: Moomins and the Winter Wonderland (2017)

As winter approaches, and the Moomins prepare to hibernate until the spring, Moomintroll (Bill Skarsgård) grows concerned about what happens while he sleeps. When he wakes early he, his father Moominpappa (Stellan Skarsgård), and Little My (Alicia Vikander), and drawn into a strange new world of invisible creatures and the coming of “Christmas” – whoever that may be.

Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are household names in Scandinavia, and much of Europe, but to a certain extent have never quite managed to break fully into Australian pop culture. That makes the Children’s International Film Festival (CHIFF) screenings of the 2017 animated feature Moomins and the Winter Wonderland in Melbourne and Sydney something of a treat, since it is a rare occasion indeed for Australian audiences to be exposed to their idiosyncratic charms. This is an appropriately idiosyncratic feature film as well, and seems well matched to the characters.

The Moomins  – white troll-like creatures with vaguely hippopotamus-like heads – first appeared in illustrator Tove Jansson’s 1945 novel The Moomins and the Great Flood. She refined and expanded the characters in their second adventure, Comet in Moominland, and ultimately wrote and illustrated nine novels, five picture books, and a newspaper comic strip. Their popularity was such that they were soon adapted many times for film and television, including this animated feature screening in Australia.

The multitude of previous animated adaptation is of key relevance here, because the animation in Moomins and the Winter Wonderland predates the film by several decades. A Polish television adaptation that ran from 1977 to 1982 has been compiled together, remastered for 4K resolution, and entirely re-dubbed with fresh dialogue. It makes it difficult to determine just how new this 2017 production really is. It is new, but at the same time it is more than 35 years old. This is not even the first time this compilation film has been assembled. Another story arc of the Polish series was compiled in a similar fashion in 2008’s Moomin and Midsummer Madness.

The act of taking short episodes and chaining them together into an 83-minute feature understandably has a strong effect on the film’s structure. It means the film seems to jump from one story thread to another in a very regimented and formal fashion. To its credit there is an overall arc that runs through the film, but it certainly comes and goes in a stop-start fashion.

The animation, comprising felt creatures with paper cut-out backgrounds, is simply delightful. The footage has been cleaned up and assembled so well as to feel as if it was deliberately produced in the present day with an eye towards a “retro” look. The new English language dub is, on the whole, tremendous. Stellan Skarsgård is pitch-perfect, as is Alicia Vikander. Bill Skarsgård is effective, but his performance suffers a little from sounding a bit too much like his horror role Pennywise in the recent It movies. It will not be a problem for young viewers – at least I hope none of them have been watching It – but for the adults in the audience it does feel just a tiny bit off-kilter and unintentionally amusing.

This is a wonderful animated feature, particularly for the young end of the children’s audience, but even for anybody else it is a sweet and amusing introduction to one of Europe’s most beloved set of children’s characters. It comes packed with charm for viewers of any age.

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