Fun in Finland

The Moomin ice cave at Vesileppis Resort in Finnish Lakeland.
The Moomin ice cave at Vesileppis Resort in Finnish Lakeland.
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Featuring the voice of Rosamund Pike, a new animated Moominvalley series is reviving interest in Tove Jansson’s cult charaters, says Sarah Marshall.

Larger than an igloo and just as solid, The Groke appears lost in her own icy thoughts. Gaze fixed on an empty space, Tove Jansson’s lumpy, lonely and largely misunderstood character bares her trademark grimace and, in keeping with the cult Moomin books, she’s literally frozen to the spot.

Dawn in the forests of Tampere

Dawn in the forests of Tampere

Expertly sculpted from eight blocks of Lapland’s finest ice, the mysterious creature is part of an ambitious new ice cave exhibit at the Vesileppis Resort in Leppavirta, a small town in Finland’s central Lakeland region. Inspired by Moominland Midwinter, Jansson’s fifth Moomin book which marked a more introspective and philosophical departure for the series, the attraction features 16 tableaux, set amid snow scenes and slides, all chilled at minus four degrees Celsius, 30 metres below the hotel.

It cost almost E30,000 to transport and store blocks harvested from the Lainio and Puruvesi rivers, where currents slow the icing process, leaving it clear and bubble-free. Anne Lantto from the resort’s marketing department justifies the expense by declaring: “Moomins deserve the best.”

Anne, like thousands of other Finns, is a dedicated fan of the Moomins, a family of flumpy, wide-eyed creatures resembling bipedal, albino hippos, whose sense of adventure and thought-provoking aphorisms appeal to a cross-section of generations. And when Vesileppis’ own icy inhabitants take a long summer dip in August, she hints (and hopes) they may be returning in some other form next year.

Born from childhood stories of ghouls guarding candy cupboards, Moomintroll became artist and author Tove Jansson’s alter-ego, later starring in nine illustrated story books, published between 1945 and 1970 and shaped by a period of post-war confusion and despair.

The inhabitants of Moominvalley first found international fame in the 1950s, and their appeal has only continued to grow. In March, Japan plans to open a theme park in the city of Hanno, and around the same time, a new animated TV series by Gutsy Animations will be broadcast in the UK through Sky Original. It’s the most expensive production by minute of any Finnish show to date.

I’m in Finland for the programme’s premiere, attended by British voice stars Jennifer Saunders, Rosamund Pike and Taron Egerton, so after a short but blissfully crisp-blue stay in Lakeland, I board a six-hour train south from Kuopio to capital city, Helsinki.

Over dinner later that evening at Elite restaurant, an elegant 1930s-style salon once frequented by Tove Jansson, Moomin expert and author Sirke Happonen shows me a collection of first editions, neatly packed into her canvas knapsack.

Achieving the correct tones and hues was vital to the new Gutsy Animations series, modernised to compete with the likes of Pixar, while retaining the humour and thoughtfulness of Jansson’s original books. I watch an episode at Moominvalley’s black-tie premiere at the Valkoinen Sali hall, sipping raspberry cocktails from Arabia’s collectable Moomin mugs and eating Moominmamma’s favourite pancakes with whipped cream and jam.

Rosamund Pike, who voices the matriarch and is a fan of the characters, had a Moomin manicure especially for the event, and stayed on in the city to celebrate her 40th birthday.

Every Finn I speak to reminisces about the limited-edition crockery they’ve collected since childhood, even refusing to drink from some rare pieces, which can sell for several hundred euros on eBay.

Although fiercely monitored by family firm Moomin Characters, whose authorisation was essential for the Vesileppis ice cave and the Gutsy Animations series, Moomin memorabilia is everywhere: Snorkmaidens decorate tea towels, Snufkins function as cookie cutters, and the ghostly, electrically-charged Hattifatteners masquerade as table lamps.

But Sophia Jansson, Tove’s niece and the creative director of Moomin Characters, admits a saturation of consumer products is a concern - particularly in a climate where sustainability is such a hot topic.

“Excuse my language, but the last thing I want is s**tloads of plastic stuff swimming around in our oceans,” she fumes when we meet at Tove Jansson’s atelier at Ullanlinnankatu 1, in the centre of Helsinki. Although she does recognise the need to revamp and reinvent.

“Classics will not always be classics,” she laments. “People will forget, and the stories will gather dust. You have to keep a brand alive.”

The idea of a brand does seem at odds with Tove Jansson, who recoiled from the hoopla and lived a largely Moomin-free life from the 1970s until she died on June 27, 2001. Her atelier bears little reference to the creatures; instead, the mezzanine studio is filled with books and the abstract artworks with which she was desperate to find fame.

Although the perfectly intact studio is not accessible to the public, fans of the Moomins can find many of Jansson’s original illustrations at the Moomin Museum in Tampere, a two-hour train ride north.

Minna Honkasalo, a researcher at Tampere Art Museum, points out one of her favourite drawings from Moominland Midwinter, featuring the young protagonist and Too-Ticky (a character inspired by Jansson’s life partner Tuulikki Pietila) sat around a ‘snow lantern’.

“This is something very Finnish,” she coos. “To build a tower of snowballs and put a candle inside.”

How to get there

Finnair (finnair.com; 020 8001 0101) flies from London Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Helsinki, with return fares from £107 in Economy Class, including all taxes and charges.

For more information on the destination, go to visitfinland.com.

For information on the ice cave, visit icecave.fi.