Living happily together in peaceful Moomin Valley, Moomintroll (voiced by Minami Takayama) and his parents Moominpapa (Akio Otsuka) and Moominmama (Ikuko Tani) believe the good times will never end. Then one dark and stormy night, a knock at the door brings a hairy green stranger seeking shelter at their home. He is Muskrat (Ryuzo Ishino), a self-styled philosopher who has a premonition of impending doom. Sure enough the next day the Moomin family discover the ocean has dried up, the plants and trees have all turned black while a huge comet hovers menacingly in the sky, drawing ever nearer. Moomintroll, his hot-headed friend Little Mii (Rei Sakuma) and greedy, silly Sniff (Ryusei Nakao) promptly set out on an eventful journey to the Observatory on the Lonely Mountains. There the assembled scientists confirm the comet is indeed heading for Moomin Valley with apocalyptic results. Yikes!
Japanese animators produced three different TV shows featuring the beloved children's characters created by Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson. Tokyo Movie Shinsha's original show aired in 1969 and was very popular in Japan. However, Jansson protested its minor moments of violence and occasional anachronisms such as automobiles. The 1972 remake from Mushi Productions met with the author's approval but it took two decades and two more anime series - 1990's Happy Moomin Family and 1991's Happy Moomin Family Adventure Diary - before fans eventually got a feature film spin-off. Essentially reworking episodes 79-104 of the Nineties TV show with ten minutes of extra footage added for the video release, Comet in Moominland adapts Jansson's like-named 1948 novel, which the author herself reprinted as a revised version in 1968. The novel was notable for including the first appearance of two key characters in the Moomin story. For on their journey to the observatory Moomintroll, Little Mii and Finn meet the ever-laidback but resourceful Snufkin (Takehito Koyasu) - who takes a typically sanguine attitude to the impending apocalypse - then rescue our hero's future love interest, the Snork Maiden (Mika Kanai), from carnivorous plants prompting the first of several rare Moomin action sequences.
While Jansson's pet themes tranquility, togetherness and living in harmony with nature always gelled with a Japanese public weaned on Shintoist beliefs, one imagines the driving message behind Comet in Moominland were particularly resonant. Scripted by Akira Miyazaki, a staple of the celebrated World Masterpiece Theatre anime series, the plot is a semi-satirical fable that ponders how people behave in the face of impending disaster, be it natural or man-made. Faced with oblivion the characters all react in different ways: Moomintroll seizes his chance for adventure and romance; Sniff gets distracted by petty, indeed downright futile endeavours like getting rich off gathering gemstones; the scientists at the observatory scrutinize the comet as a scientific wonder and seem oblivious to its impending impact on the poor ordinary folks in Moomin Valley. Meanwhile the valley's resident doomsayer, gruff and grouchy old Muskrat concludes it is judgement and varies from browbeating residents to repent their sins or else confronting them with the meaninglessness of their existence in a vast, uncaring universe.
It is heady stuff for children's entertainment, downright Bergmanesque in parts except with brighter colours, cheery music and cuddlier, optimistic protagonists. Jannson's attitude to existential gloom is best embodied in Moominmama who steadfastly continues preparing tasty treats for her son's birthday and suggests Muskrat try some cookies while they await the apocalypse. The animators handle potentially tricky themes, liable to go over the heads of younger viewers, with a dexterous light touch, keeping the focus on the lovable characters and injecting moments of action (including a Hayao Miyazaki-like aerial sequence with the heroes pulled through the sky clinging to a fly-away tent) and absurdist humour (Moomintroll and Snuffkin defeat the carnivorous plants by hurling insults, although naturally Little Mii sneaks in a few punches). At the end of the story gentle bravery and above all humanity sees everyone through the dark times. If the message sounds simple that is indeed the point. In times of trouble we should cherish simple things like love and family. On a technical level the backgrounds, character designs and animation are of a high standard. While the soundtrack for the Japanese version was composed by Sumio Shiratori, the international release was scored by Pierre Kartner, the Dutch musician behind The Smurfs song. Finnish animators later remade Comet in Moominland as the 3D stop-motion animated Moomins and the Comet Chase (2010) which features a Scandinavian all-star cast (Stellan Skarsgård, Peter Stormare, Alexander Skarsgård) and music from Bjork. Mads Mikkelson voices Sniff!