Quarantine and comfort in 'Moominvalley'

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 5:47pm

NOSELL

Gutsy Animations

Many unexpected developments have happened over the course of the past several months, but for me, the most unexpected has been my new-found love for a family of furry hippo-like trolls. It started at the beginning of the fall semester, when I noticed a stuffed hippo-creature my Finnish friend had. I asked what it was, and she informed me that it was a “Moomin,” a cartoon troll that’s immensely popular in Finland. I didn’t give the matter much thought, and the Moomins receded from my mind for much of the next six months, rearing their heads every so often to remind me of their existence. 

Fast-forward to around the start of quarantine. I already felt pretty homesick for Ann Arbor and was rather dejected, if not totally bored, by the entire situation. I suppose this primed me for the pending visit by the Moomins because they soon inched back into my periphery, thousands of miles from Finland, in the form of music. More specifically, music from an animated Finnish television series called “Moominvalley” that premiered in 2019. The series’ soundtrack and list of featured artists happened to appeal to my favorite genres of folk and indie-pop (which is probably why Spotify recommended it to me in the first place), and so I happily let the soft and upbeat melodies envelope me, at first not realizing the origins of the song. 

After listening to the first track, I checked the album it was from and, to my surprise, there was a group of Moomins staring back at me. In spite of my bewilderment, I listened on. This was the point of no return, and there was no averting the collision course I was on with the Moomins. It wasn’t long after that my curiosity gained the better of me, and, wanting to hear the songs in context, I watched the first episode of the 2019 adaptation. And then another. And another. Needless to say, the Moomins were just what I needed while isolated in quarantine.

As it turns out, the Moomins are much more profound than I at first believed. Created by Finnish-Swedish writer Tove Jansson in 1945, the Moomins are a family of trolls consisting of Moominmamma, Moominpappa and their son, Moomintroll. Stories typically follow Moomintroll and the adventures he has with his friends. Debuting in a series of children’s books, the Moomins were surprisingly progressive for their time — Jansson wove feminist and queer themes throughout her stories, using her characters to encourage acceptance of these ideas. Maybe it was Jansson’s openness about her own bisexuality, or her being raised by accepting parents, but regardless of the reason, Jansson’s creations have always reinforced the importance of unabashed love. 

However, these elements weren’t what drew me into “Moominvalley.” Though the sincere stories added to the charm, the show itself was a source of radiance and warmth. I went for a walk through the woods the other day and as the warm sunlight filtered in through the trees and the leaves crunched beneath my feet, I felt relaxed. Watching “Moominvalley” felt a bit like that. The way that the animation worked in tandem with the music and story just struck a chord with me.

Take the opening sequence of the season one premiere, for example. “Little My Moves In” opens on a shot of Moominvalley at dawn, the sky painted pink with the rising sun and the clouds dyed a soft flamingo color, with the melodic strings of ALMA’s “Starlight” easing the viewer into the scene. The camera zooms in on the Moomins’ home, where Moomintroll (Taron Egerton, “Rocketman”) bursts open a window and breathes in the morning air. The warm hues of this scene are accentuated with vibrancy by ALMA’s song, and as the camera pans around Moominvalley’s forested scenery, ALMA’s voice imbues the setting with a sort of gentle wonder and whimsicality. This characterization of the valley persists throughout the series, and is part of what is so calming about the show.

The characters themselves have a sort of reassuring warmth, as well. Episode 12 of Season 1 illustrates this well. In “The Invisible Child,” Moomintroll and his tenacious, bratty friend Little My (Bel Powley, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) are out mushroom-picking when they encounter Ninny (Mayumi Kawai), a young girl who was neglected so much by her caretaker that she turned invisible. Moomintroll believes Moominmamma (Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”) can fix her, so he brings Ninny to his family’s home. The rest of the episode revolves around the Moomin family’s love and acceptance, and the slow progression toward visibility they trigger. When every part of Ninny but her head is visible, Moomintroll, thinking that it would be the final push she needed, takes Ninny back to her house, unaware of the neglect she suffered. As to be expected, this spectacularly backfires, with Ninny turning completely invisible and running away to hide. 

Following this fiasco, Moomintroll takes a moment to realize that the only thing he ever needed to do was listen, but he was so self-absorbed in his belief that he knew what was best for Ninny that he only ended up hurting her. He stops his family, who are all calling out for Ninny’s name and tells them they all need to listen more to avoid making the same mistake again. Ninny, hearing this while hiding nearby, finally feels as though she can be vulnerable and she turns completely visible. They all rejoice and the camera pans up while the first gentle chords of dodie’s “Ready Now” begin to play.

Once again, the soundtrack powers through. Except in this scene, instead of reinforcing the setting’s atmosphere, the track underscores the potency of the conclusion. dodie’s “Ready Now” is intimate and vulnerable. Its hopeful lyrics, which are about being “ready” to open up after being hurt, fit the episode perfectly, and I found myself drawn in by dodie’s remarkable sincerity.

Of course, the music isn’t all there is to this scene. Moomintroll struggles a lot with things, like taking the time to listen to other people, and what this episode is emblematic of is the season-long progression he makes towards overcoming his flaws. Moomintroll’s repeated mistakes throughout the season are paradoxically comforting, because he reminds us that even in the face of persistent failure, progress can still be made. There’s a consistency in his shortcomings, yet Moomintroll is willing and capable of learning, so the learning experience takes place over the course of an entire season. This makes those moments when Moomintroll finally overcomes his own failings all the more satisfying, because they feel earned. This satisfaction doesn’t come from the idea that the character is now flawless, but from the culmination of slowly inching toward the goal. So, in spite of Moomintroll’s mistake in “The Invisible Child,” the episode’s conclusion remains comfortingly hopeful. 

Such was my experience with this show. When everything is so uncertain, it’s nice to have something that transports you back to more carefree, less troublesome times. For me, that thing was “Moominvalley.” There were more than a few moments when I felt I was growing alongside these characters, and the show has left an indelible Moomin-shaped mark on me.