“Moominvalley” – Gutsy Animations

TV Series Review:

The week of April the 14th 2019 saw the launch of the new CG animated adaptation of Tove Jansson’s creation “Moominvalley” – on Sky One in the U.K.

As an early fan of her work (including attempts at animating some of the stories whilst still at school) and more recently as both a supporter of the Indiegogo campaign that helped launch the series production and an assignment as a storyboard revisionist on the last episode of Season 1, I looked forward to seeing the end result with a great deal of excitement.

Season 1 has stuck pretty close to the stories Jansson wrote and each episode itself is formed from either single stories or a combination of episodes from longer stories with expansion provided by storylines from the comics written and drawn later, by Jansson’s brother, Lars.

In spite of initial doubts concerning the choice of voice-over actors for the various characters, once the series got into its stride quickly by Episode 2, it became clear that the new series’ aim of retaining the unique tone of Jansson’s books is largely successful, something that had been lost in earlier iterations, most notably the Japanese animated adaptation of the 80’s.

The look of the series is close to the initial pre-production art created to suggest the rich visual style being aimed for, eg the example above, however, the inevitable demands of schedules and turnaround that series animation imposes, results in a more economic version that still manages to retain the sense of atmosphere in the early concept work – there simply are no opportunities to fine tune the image, add atmosphere and play with grading that you find in longer schedule, bigger budget feature length animation, to create that moment of awe when you stop to take in a scene and enjoy the atmosphere, and the plots all move along at a fair clip.

The use of CGI to realise the world of the Moomins might seem to be loaded with potential pitfalls – firstly, I’ve always been a big fan of Tove Janssons’ illustration style, which varied across the books from being loose and sketchy to tighter, more detailed and decorative and personally speaking, in any animated adaptation, the drawings, either those of Jansson or her brother, would have been the first point of reference and suggest a wholly 2D, drawn approach.

Tove Jansson was a bit of a rule breaker throughout her life, evidenced by 2 recent biographies – success as a writer and illustrator ran parallel to a struggle to find a painterly style that was in no way “illusionist” – in much of her work there is a disregard for the conventional ways of portraying the real world and this extends to her book illustrations – they are more decorative and owe a great deal to graphic art traditions.

In this context, CGI might seem an odd choice that runs counter to her principles – the colour palettes used in the series are intended to reflect the Finnish environment whereas the colour schemes Jansson used when she occasionally produced colour illustrations tended to be less realistic, preferring instead bright acid colours that were easy to reproduce in print and also be appropriate to childrens books, even if the stories themselves were quite sophisticated – some are so stylized as to be almost made of cut paper.

Unless there is deliberate attempt to subvert the conventions of 3D CGI, e.g. as in “Spider Man – Into The SpiderVerse” – the end result being a hybrid of 2D and 3D, CGI imposes what are essentially live action conventions in terms of the design and construction of scenes – the camera is free moving, there is a suggestion of the spatial, and volume and lighting come into play – in fact it becomes “illusionist” and so the world of Moomin becomes more real.

In many ways it’s like the way in which Disney moved his characters from the flat 2D world that they inhabited on screen to the fully interactive 3D world of the theme parks he built later on, suggesting that the dream of the creator is to fully immerse into the created world.

Personally, I prefer to keep things within the bounds of the graphic form since everyone is then free to imagine the world for themselves and this reveals some of the issues faced by film makers when adapting the work of an illustrator, the key one being of interpretation.

The nature of animation on this scale being what it is, consistency across a series of episodes is crucial – not everyone can draw like Tove Jansson (or any illustrator for that matter) or in her often changeable style and so a primary concern is to “fix” the design aspects – this can often result in a diluted version of the original that loses some of the unique aspects of a style, rendering it generic – especially true if you move away from the illustrative 2D world.

At the outset the intention was to combine 3D and 2D sensibilities into “Moominvalley” in order to retain the graphical qualities of Tove Jansson’s work that have become inseparable from her writing and I think this has been carried through very effectively considering the technique of CGI – the end result is very contemporary and meshes with the other areas that have come to characterise “Brand Moomin”, to feed what is proving to be a growing appetite for Finland’s greatest export ranging across merchandise, licensing and theme parks.

It’s impossible to know how Jansson herself would view the series but in her own lifetime there were 3 previous animated series using different techniques that were well received by both her and her fans, though the Japanese series strayed from her vision to some extent – I think she would be pleased with the end result on several levels, not least because it is in the good hands of her niece Sophia Jansson, and so far the response from fans, including myself, has been an overwhelming thumbs up for Season 1, with Season 2 production already underway.

Ravi Swami – 2019