Review: Moomins on the Riviera (Picard & Hemilä, 2014)

Still from the movie Moomins on the Riviera

Who are the Moomins? If you don’t live in Europe, you may not have grown up with these hippopotamus-resembling creatures created by Finnish illustrator and writer Tove Jansson. In the English-language version of the hand-drawn animated film Moomins on the Riviera, the Moomins (by their accent) are a simple British country family (think Tolkien’s hobbits but, if possible, even more bumblingly innocent) who live peacefully in Moominvalley among friends and neighbors. Creatures of all kinds inhabit Jansson’s world–some known to us, such as dogs and cats, and others not quite as identifiable, such as the weasel-/dog-/rat-looking Moomin companion White Shadow.

In this particular Moomin story, Moominpappa, Moominmamma, their son Moomin, his girlfriend Snorkmaiden, and a couple of their friends decide to take a trip to the French Riviera. By accident and misinterpretation, the Moomins (or, rather, the newly anointed “d’Moomins”) find themselves staying at the ritziest room in the ritziest hotel in the area. Snorkmaiden is in seventh heaven rubbing shoulders with her favorite celebrities, particularly a sophisticated poodle named Audrey Glamour (pronounced gluh-MOOR). Moominpappa, too, seems to be in his element, slipping easily into an early-20th-century-lounging-British-colonist patois. Their fellow guests take their social blunders to be the charming eccentricities of the fabulously rich, which suit Moominpappa and Snorkmaiden just fine. But Moominmamma is quite put off by the Riviera’s excess and snobbery, and Moomin feels awkward and out-of-place, especially when the slick Clark (who looks oddly like Val Kilmer mixed with a Berenstain bear) emerges as a rival for Snormaiden’s affections. Fed up with their mates’ unseemly behavior, Moominmamma and Moomin leave the hotel to live beneath their upturned boat.

Unlike other animated films aimed at younger audiences, Moomins on the Riviera is light on flashy visuals, saccharine moral lessons, and familiar, sentimental plotlines. Instead it draws in viewers of all ages with its charming, random world, filled with amusing characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. (Take Little My, for example. Arriving in Moominvalley with her older sister on a pirate ship where the two were kept as prisoners, the mischief-making little imp steals aboard the Moomins’ Riveria-bound boat. Yet, though she delights in chaos and turmoil, the grief Little My causes is never serious, never truly evil.) Despite the necessary narrative tension, this world of the Moomins remains persistently positive–but without ever seeming bland. It is endlessly creative, brimming with delightful strangeness, and goes far to demonstrate the Moomin philosophy that simple may simply be better.

Opening on December 4th in L.A., Moomins on the Riviera will qualify for the Best Animated Picture Oscar this year. Stay tuned to see if it makes the cut!