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An adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's story, where Max, a disobedient little boy sent to bed without his supper, creates his own world - a forest inhabited by ferocious wild creatures who crown Max as their ruler.
Hundreds of years ago in Lapland, a little boy named Nikolas loses his family in an accident. The villagers decide to look after the orphaned boy together. Once a year - at Christmas - Nikolas moves to a new home. To show his gratitude, Nikolas decides to make toys for the children of the families as good-bye presents. Over the years, Nikolas's former adoptive families become many, and soon almost every house has presents on its doorstep on Christmas morning. At thirteen, Nikolas is sent to live and work with Iisakki, a grumpy old carpenter, who forbids Nikolas to continue making presents for Christmas. Gradually, however, Nikolas wins Iisakki's trust. Together they begin to look after the Christmas traditional that Nikolas has begun. When the aged Iisakki has to leave Nikolas and move away, the tradition of Christmas presents is once again at risk. Thankfully, Nikolas comes up with a solution that brings children joy every Christmas, even continuing to today. Written by
Americans may think Santa Claus lives in North Pole but in Finland everybody knows the truth about his place of residence: he is really from the Korvatunturi fell in Finnish Lapland. Based on this premise is also built Christmas Story, the second feature film of director Juha Wuolijoki who was previously best known for the peculiar culinary TV comedy Gourmet Club (2004) featuring the sturdy Michael Badalucco among others.
As opposed to presenting later adventures of the Santa we all know, Christmas Story sets out to reveal how he originally became what he is nowadays seen as. At the beginning a young boy named Nikolas (Jonas Rinne) becomes orphaned in Northern Finland sometime in the mid-19th century and the compassionate villagers start taking turns in looking after him, always for one year at a time. The thankful Nikolas takes up secretly leaving small presents for the friendly families every Christmas but upon the arrival of the great famine years, the villagers have no choice but to give the boy in the custody of the seemingly brutal and feared hermit carpenter Iisakki (Kari Väänänen). While learning the secrets of woodwork under the guidance of his strict new master, Nikolas never forgets the good people who once helped him and keeps making new presents for every Christmas.
I admit I was sceptical about the movie long before seeing it since Christmas movies have a history of being corny cheesefests and this one appeared to be no exception. Things were not helped by the fact that it also marked the acting debut of the highly popular but tremendously charisma-free pop star Antti Tuisku whose involvement felt like a cheap attempt to cater to the masses at the expense of professional casting. Luckily, I was proved wrong: the story is actually pretty down-to-earth and keeps the most obvious tearjerking clichés at arm's length at all times. Kari Väänänen does a great job as the scary Iisakki who is revealed to be a bitter and sad old man under his hateful surface and Hannu-Pekka Björkman is excellent as the heavily bearded adult Nikolas. The kid actor Otto Gustavsson is given a decent-sized role as the 13-year old Nikolas but gives no reasons to complain and Antti Tuisku's role is kept small enough to not get too distracting after all. I really hope the dubbing does not ruin the performances for viewers outside Finland.
Although the origins of a few obligatory Santa trademarks are of course presented (namely, how he got the reindeer, started dressing in red and became dedicated to his cause), the plot is not concerned with the real folkloristic roots of the historical Sinterklaas. Instead, the main focus is wisely kept on the characters and their development over the many decades the story covers. Nikolas is a thoroughly sympathetic man but can also be seen as a tragic loner driven by an obsession stemming from past traumas. Loneliness, fear of growing old, slipping further and further down into a crazed world of his own... He is not free of problems but fights them in his own way. Eh, maybe I'm digging too deep into the story but hey, isn't that the fun thing about watching movies anyway?
Technically Christmas Story is "at international level" like we Finns like to say about movies that do not look cozily clumsy and home-baked. The numerous shots of snowy scenery, the softly lit interiors and the elaborate carpentry equipment in Iisakki and Nikolas' workshop look all good and the score by Leri Leskinen is adequately dramatic and expressive throughout, even if also sentimental and overbearing at times. The sole supernatural scene at the end comes closest to the traditional American image of Santa; I am not sure if it fits in the earthy tone that has been maintained in earlier scenes but I guess a flashy finale was needed to ensure the aforementioned feel of "international quality".
After five rambling paragraphs, all I wanted to say was that I was positively surprised by the movie and think it is a well made holiday season film. It pleasantly avoids promoting consumerism or ramming a corny pro-nuclear family message down the throats of the audience. Perhaps some braver stylization could have raised the movie even higher above mediocre Christmas romp but it is definitely quality family entertainment as it is now too peaceful, lovable and able to hold the interest of older viewers as well.
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