News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Exhibit Review: Moomin Animations – Thrills and Cuddles

Moomin Animations – Thrills and Cuddles, Minna Honkasalo. Washington D.C.: National Children’s Museum on September 3, 2021-January 9, 2022.

 reviewed by Mike Rhode

In 1945, Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson created her Mumintrolls for a children's book. The Moomins look like hippos crossed with the Pillsbury doughboy, but have proved popular enough to make her the Scandinavian equivalent of Walt Disney. She eventually wrote or drew 9 books about them. In 1947 she started a comic strip with the characters, which started appearing in English in 1954. Her brother Lars Jannson joined her on the strip from 1959-1961 and then he took the strip over until 1975 when it ended. Reprints have been published by Canada's Drawn & Quarterly. There have been multiple animated versions of her characters, and that is what this exhibit focused on.

The NCM has had some rough years, closing off and on while searching for new locations. In 2020, it finally wound up just off Pennsylvania Ave, NW in a plaza behind the Reagan building. They had to shut again almost immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but reopened in September 2021 with the Moomin exhibit among others, and are aiming for an attendance of a half million people per year. Note that you have to visit with a child; unaccompanied visitors need to make an appointment, and throughout my tour of the exhibit, I was accompanied by a staff member. The museum is actually largely underground; one enters at ground level and then moves downward through an unfinished concrete warren. The guide is probably necessary for more than the main reason.

The Embassy of Finland has brought over a version of Honkasalo's original exhibit from the Moomin Museum that is completely composed of reproductions. It has several sections - a wall on Jansson's life, stills from various animations, 4 screens showing cartoons, and several activity areas for children. An average American viewer might have no knowledge about the Moomins, in spite of the fact that there have been so many adaptations. This exhibit focuses on animated versions and includes episodes from 1959 (West Germany), 1969 (Japan), 1977 (Poland), 1990 (Japan). Obviously, none of these would be particularly easy for an Anglophone to find, but the 1969 one in particular was surpressed by Jansson, as noted in the exhibit catalog - "She felt that Momin was too far removed from her stories' world and atmosphere. Elements foreign to Moominvalley had been inserted into the tales, including cars, money and weapons. For example, a few episodes show Snork driving around in a car, Moomintroll makes money by busking, and weapons feature in several episodes." "She did not want them to reach international distribution, so they have never been broadcast outside Japan. Today, they are hard to find even in Japan, on account of complicated copyright issues connected with the [1900s series]." The exhibit catalog is unfortunately not available, except for a few copies lying in the exhibit, but I recommend it highly if you can find it.

Jansson has been the focus of recent attention including a documentary, two biographies, and an edition of her letters. The wall on her life is written for children, but includes the basics necessary to have an idea about her as a person and as a creator. To the exhibit's credit, the segment on her life does not shy away from her love of another woman, even though it was socially unacceptable at the time. "A soul mate. Amid the hustle and buslte, Tove meets Tuulikki, the woman who will become her life partner for the rest of her life..." reads part of the panel.

The wall of stills would probably have been of more interest in the original exhibit, as it apparently included some actual artwork by her. Here, understandably, it's all reproductions and screen captures. A fan of the characters might be interested in seeing how they evolved in different animations. There are also some areas for children to draw, hang things on a tree, or take a picture with cardboard standups. There is also a small selection of gifts in the giftshop. Also of interest from a cartoon perspective are a STEAM-centric exhibits about creating animations featuring SpongeBob and his cast, and another on Paw Patrol.

All the images, except for "Exhibition space 4" and "Tove Jansson," are courtesy of the Embassy of Finland in Washington, D.C. The two are courtesy of the NCM. The exhibit catalog cover is taken from the copy the staff gave to me. A version of this review also appeared on the ComicsDC blog. My photographs can be seen here.


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