Something has happened in the 2015 feature adaptation of Tove Jansson's hippopotamus-like creatures.
Directed by Xavier Picard (the French artist also acting as film producer, along with Hanna Hemila), Moomins on the Riviera has all the elements that have made these creatures lovable, especially via the 1991 TV series.
Character eccentriticy, a subdued atmosphere, an impeccable eye for a simplified color palette and hand-drawn artistry almost guarantee a nostalgic review of the perennial motto "what makes us happy"
But subdued atmosphere cannot justify a lacklustre plot. Moomins on the Riviera sets to defy cultural stereotypes, but resorts to one-liner jokes and endless variations of the "money can't buy happiness" theme.
The first act introduces Little My (the only character who gets unaffected from the family's cultural mistreatment) and her naive sister Mumble to the Moomin family, after they have been saved from pirates.
MoominPappa (Nathaniel Parker) and MoominPappa (Tracy Ann Oberman) seem well-placed to defy even the hardest pirate, along with their undecided son Moomin (Russell Tovey) and his girlfriend Snorkmaiden (Stephanie Winiecki). But the pirate subplot soon disintegrates, and the family decides to visit France to face a kids-friendly version of Meet the Parents cultural stereotypes.
Once in Riviera (and the second act of the film), the plot divides into multiple adventures that each family member has to face.
While MoominPappa befriends the lonely and undiscovered elephant sculptor Marquis Mongaga (Philippe Smolikowski), Snorkmaiden has her own flirting adventures with the English playboy Clark (Dave Browne). Funny and eccentric, but also not enchanting enough adventures to catch attention, Moomins pitfalls reveal a basic fault in storyline: never divide character's stories if these are not sufficiently developed.
The third act climax and the chase attempts to build momentum, and the always welcome soundtrack by various talented persons (Milla Viljamaa, Timo Lassy, Panu Aaltio) works miracles.
Distinctive hand-drawn animation, superb character design (cudos to Valerie Hadida) and visual atmosphere always supplement what the story cannot provide.
Even though it is sweet and meant to be loved, Moomins on the Riviera lacks an unknown, mysterious enemy for the family to work against. Riviera is too well-known and expected for the film premise to work satisfactorily.
It is no wonder that the quiet and serene Snufkin is left behind. Moomins are quite at unease in their new, glitzy but at the same time too predictable environment.
Wonders and mysteries are always more interesting in Moominvalley.