At 32 years of age, I have fond if foggy memories of watching the cartoon series of The Moomins as a child. Full disclosure right now; I’ve not investigated them since. Though there have been plenty of opportunities or dalliances at which I’ve thought I might revisit them, something else has always managed to distract my attention. But its a world I remember with immense fondness. In my mind, The Moomins exist as an oasis of gentle contentedness. At one with nature. A European answer to the simple, idyllic carefree harmony of Studio Ghibli’s mascot Totoro. When a trailer for their jaunty return to the big screen passed by my eyes and ears a couple of months ago, I was almost surprised at how glad I was that this vocation might force a reunion I’ve been putting off for years.
Moomins On The Riviera is a French production given full blessing to use Tove Jansson’s beloved characters by her niece and associate producer Sophia. The story itself is embellished from one that appears in Jansson’s original comics, and sees the Moomin family and most of their associated characters set sail away from Moomin Valley for a vacation on the French Riviera, where a number of light-hearted escapades befall each of them in turn, making a mockery of the locals while simultaneously testing their patience.
Quite how this comes about is joyfully absurd (it involves a pirate ship), but once the little hippos (are they actually hippos?) arrive at their destination, the film settles down to its main recourse, which is gentle entertainment for one and all. Snorkmaiden dabbles with gambling in order to buy a bikini to impress a heart-throb of the social elite, Moomin befriends a poor local artist with a penchant for sculpting elephants, while Moominmama helps a small dog (whose character name I honestly can’t remember and can’t pin down) to find a companion with the aid of a little rouse and a paintbrush. All the while the staff of The Grand Hotel grow evermore irked by their strange guests, something set to only intensify as the Moomin clan don’t realise they’re staying at an expensive hotel where their respective exploits are all adding to the bill.
All of this, which has the timelessness evident in Jansson’s original works, is presented as good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. It may not be particularly ambitious in its appearance (the level of detail is rarely intricate in keeping with Jansson’s established aesthetic; crowds for instance are silhouette globs as opposed to meticulously detailed masses of information), but in an age in which every conceivable title that can be mined for its nostalgia value is getting ‘rebooted’ with a modern feel, it’s wonderful to find The Moomins pushing back against the trend. Moomins On The Riviera is refreshingly out of step with everything else around it on the modern cinematic playing field, and feels as though it could have been made at any time in the last 70 years.
Director Xavier Picard seems very much at ease with the material, and there is little here to gripe about particularly. Youngsters will love it, so long as they’re not too impatient with the coasting pace, which feels natural for the characters, but is a step or two slower than the hyperactivity of a majority of modern-day animated fare. That gentleness I always associated with The Moomins is definitely rekindled here and along with the easy, lilting score, could well lull a sleepy adult or two off for forty winks on a Sunday afternoon.
And while the story line offers little meat to tuck into, unsurprisingly, those poor snoozing grown-ups would be missing out on a fair handful of witty observations and barbs, particularly at the expense of the mild-mannered upper classes and the vain materialism of rich and shallow socialites. It’s fun to see these elements of society at the butt of the joke, even if there’s nothing revolutionary in that. In fact, it’s very unoriginality sometimes works in its favour. It feels like opening a time capsule. That can work for it and against it, but mainly the results are positive.
If there’s anything to bemoan it’s that by placing the Moomin clan in our world, we don’t get the privilege of exploring theirs. When I think of The Moomins I think of pure, unadulterated escapism, and part of that is the verdant, peaceful world they inhabit. It would be nice to see a little more of that if this resurgence triggers further adaptations.
Moomins On The Riviera was never going to be an outlet for complex or intellectual discourse, and watching it you get a sense of how sublimely featherweight and unnecessary it is. But that doesn’t mean that it has no value. Like a rose, or a cupcake, or a clear sky on a clement day, Moomins On The Riviera is happy to just exist. It has little purpose other than to make the world a tiny bit better. I’ll let you consider whether that’s something of high or low ambition.