Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Joulutarina - A Christmas Story

NetFlix 3.8/5
IMDB 6.8/10
My Rating: 9/10
Sincerity Factor: 10/10
Treacle Factor: 4/10

Nikolas is orphaned as a boy when his parents and sister fall through the ice.  Fellow villagers are all too poor to afford to adopt him, so they agree to share the responsibility, and each family takes him for a year, switching off each Christmas.  Grateful Nikolas repays his adopted brothers and sisters by leaving hand-carved wooden toys for them secretly, until he falls into the dubious care of master woodworker Iisakki.    

Part of the Kentucky Fried Popcorn Christmas Review Series.

A lot of folks say, "They don't make them like that anymore", referring to the holiday films of their youth, and I'll agree that many older films seemed to have a more natural feel for balancing the secular and spiritual issues of their stories (Today, more and more holiday movies seem to be falling squarely on one side or the other of the cultural divide - Either completely secular romantic comedies that happen to occur at Christmas, or 100% overbearing religious films).  However, if you're missing the warm glow of something like Miracle on 34th Street, I heartily recommend this 2007 largely-unknown Finnish film called Joulutarina in its home country and, unimaginatively, Christmas Story here...  Dooming it to a lifetime of movie search confusion with the Red Ryder BB gun movie from 1983.

Fellow pipe smokers like myself are going to want a long clay churchwarden for this film - It's just that sort of movie.  Classical, one might say.  Certainly one of the more heartfelt holiday movies of the last 20 years, and all without ladling on the syrup and sugary sweetness.  Yes, there are children in the film, but no angelic cherubs with Christmas cookies for the villain...  It's a much more realistic film than that, if one can use the term "realistic" in a movie about the life story of Santa Claus. 

The story kicks off in a poor fishing village.  Nikolas' young sister Aada is ill and his parents need to take her to the doctor, so they leave Nikolas alone and venture into a blizzard at night, where they all die from falling through the ice.  Young Nikolas vows vengeance on snow everywhere, and devotes his life to becoming Batma..  No, sorry.  Nikolas builds a life foundation of empathy and giving on this childhood tragedy.  As he is passed from family to family like a parcel, he engages with his temporary brothers and sisters, and begins secretly leaving gifts for them in thanks for their taking him in, however briefly.  This carries on until no one can take him, and he is forced to live with the cruel woodcarver Iisakki, a sullen and angry man who treats him with disdain while using him as a workshop slave.  The rest of the movie spans the deepening relationship between Nikolas and Iisakki as Nikolas grows up and carries on his tradition of gift-giving all through his life.  If Christopher Nolan had made this, it would be called "Santa Claus Begins".

Before I lay on the gratuitous praise, I have to give one big rant about the film's presentation in the US - Both the US DVD and the Netflix streaming version are English-dubbed only, rather than Finnish language + subtitles.  I hate dubbed movies with a burning passion, even while acknowledging that the dubbing job in this is actually pretty good, as dubbing goes.  I don't mind the option of a dub, but for god's sake, give us an original language option too.  It's a mystifying omission and US viewers will have to get past the distraction of poorly synched lip movements in order to appreciate the film.  Worse, the Netflix streaming version is pan-and-scan, not letterbox, so Netflix viewers will miss a lot of the cinematic wonder of the scenery in this thing:

 I have the DVD and the visual quality is good, but I resented having to pay for a dubbed-only disc.  Still, the DVD quality is a markedly better experience than Netflix's cropped streaming version, so buyer beware - Watch it first for free on Netflix streaming, but know that your experience will be much improved by seeing the DVD.  My other caveat is more a caution - Do NOT watch the US trailer for the film!  No matter how much you might want to, or how curious you may be.  It completely spoilers the end of the movie and ruins the outcome of the climactic mystery. If you must see a trailer, watch this one instead - It's the subtitled Finnish language trailer that does a better job of telling the story without blowing the ending:

That said, I'll get on to all that is right with the film.  It's gorgeous.  Despite being made on a limited budget, it uses the best of the local scenery to create an environment that is Lord of the Rings-beautiful:

It's really refreshing to see a film that is enjoyable for all ages without being lunch-hurlingly insipid or crammed to the gills with Starbucks product placements and other such pop culture in-jokes.  50 years from now, no one will understand half the references in Shrek sequels, but this will be as good and watchable as ever.  It might be a bit too dark for the tots, though, and some of the themes may pass them by - It's a slow moving film and it takes its time to develop.  We watch Nikolas grow up and we're halfway through the story before he even starts to resemble the Santa image we all recognize.  And folks who like their holiday movies whitewashed may not take to this tale of an emotionally-damaged Santa Claus who pours his life's energy into bringing cheer to children to fill the void of the childhood he never had.  There's a distinctly sad and wistful air that runs throughout the film, bolstered by the real world grounding - No flying reindeer, no magic, no down-the-chimney...  While we're shown the events that go into building the finished picture of Santa, he's a believable Santa, an old man who laboriously loads up a sleigh and rides through the freezing cold to deliver wrapped wooden toys to the doorsteps of nearby villages.  He's all too real, and all too mortal, so prepare the kiddies for the sight of an aged Santa faltering on a shaking cane.  The ending probably won't leave a dry eye in the house, even among the cynics.

Enough said.  See it.  One of the best Christmas movies ever made.

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