Tove Jansson’s niece Sophia is part of the team behind a new Moomins feature film (playing at the BFI London Film Festival) that draws on the spirit and style of the author’s classic comic strips.

moomins on the riviera

Moomins on The Riviera has been four-plus years in the making – but you could say it’s really been in the works for 60 years.

That’s how long ago it was when Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson started her original comic strip featuring the Moomins for London’s Evening News. Over the next 20 years, more than 800 Moomin comic strips were published to 20 million readers in 40 countries. And now these comic strips get a new life as they are adapted to the big screen in the new hand-drawn animated feature.

The film, which opens theatrically in Finland today, starts screening at the BFI London Film Festival tomorrow (with a repeat screening Oct 18).

Finland-based producer Hanna Hemila (whose credits include Le Havre) said that she was speaking to the artist’s niece, associate producer Sophia Jansson, who said “it was a pity nobody had made a film based on the original comic strips.” There had been offers from Hollywood and other major players, but Hemila thought “France would be the right partner because of their history with comic strips and with animation.”

Sophia Jansson, the niece of the late artist, adds “the comic strips are so wonderful. And they are not so much for kids, they are less childish.”

Animation veteran director Xavier Picard was quick to come on board, even though he didn’t know the Moomins growing up in France (he discovered them 20 years ago in Japan).

The hand-drawn 2D animated film harkens back to the author’s original style. “In the comic strips, you can see the beautiful way she uses the lines,” Hemila says.

The style “suits Tove’s illustrations better” than a more computer generated (or 3D) approach, Jansson adds. “The Moomins have a difficult shape for 3D,” she adds with a laugh. The style is very different from the fuzzy-felt Moomins TV series made in Poland in the 1970s.

Five writers contributed to the film’s script – Leslie Stewart (UK), Annina Enckell (Finland), Beata Harju (Finland), as well as Picard and Hemila. They pulled together bits of various comic strips into one cohesive story – about the Moomins leaving Moominvalley to have an adventure in the Riviera, where they visit casinos and grand hotels and encounter movie stars, playboys, and aspiring artists.

The film should appeal to adults as well as kids. As Hemila notes, “In Finland, adults read the books because of the philosophy…and Tove wrote the comic strips for adults, while her books were for younger children.”

120,000 drawings

Picard and his team in France created very detailed storyboards ahead of production. Then 30 artists in China made the 120,000 line drawings that were then scanned in, coloured and composited in Paris.

Picard adds: “I’m proud it’s in the spirit of Tove Jansson, of her writings, her drawings and her spirit.”

“I wanted a more monochrome palate. And this colour also sometimes reflects the feeling of the characters…like the yellow when they reach the Riviera because they are happy,” he adds.

Four composers worked on a charming score that Picard says includes “some jazz, some classical, some folk, and some sounds inspired by Jacques Tati, especially Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.”

Getting emotion (or even dialogue) into the film was something of a challenge as the Moomins, ahem, don’t have mouths. “It’s difficult to portray emotions without mouths, but you can do it with their eyes a little bit, and their full bodies are moving,” he adds.

The voice cast for the English-language version includes Russell Tovey (Being Human, The History Boys) as Moomin, Nathaniel Parker as Moominpappa, Tracy Ann Oberman as Moominmamma and Stephanie Winiecki as Snorkmaiden. The other versions of Moomins On The Riviera are in Finnish, Swedish, French, and Japanese, with Hebrew, Chinese and Arabic language versions on the horizon. (Paris-based Indie Sales is handling international sales; a UK deal on the film could be closed before the end of LFF.)

This year marks the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth (she died in 2011), which is one reason the production finished the film more quickly than most animated projects.  

“The artistic team has made an effort to be true to the original drawings and the original text. That’s important…Tove would love the colours of this film…she would think it’s beautiful,” Jansson adds. The style worked so well that Jansson is now in discussions with various parties for a similar Moomins TV series.

With the Moomins still beloved around the globe (perhaps still breaking into America), why does Jansson think her aunt’s creations are so popular so many decades after they were created? “Tove was so multitalented, so people find different ways into this world. Some love comic strips, some love children’s literature, some are into graphic design….I’m not sure that Tove planned it all out, but she had this vivid, talented mind. These simple stories are imbued with meaning between the lines.”