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Monday, December 14, 2009

Niko - Lentäjän poika (2008) aka The Flight Before Christmas


Good Finnish animation ... for older kids and grown-ups

English spoken - The Flight Before Christmas
Dutch spoken - Niko en de Vliegende Brigade

When this popped up on CBS TV the other night, I started watching it, and the first thing I thought was "This is not an American-made film." For one thing, it's fairly densely plotted and has a much more complex and dark storyline than a U.S. cartoon would have. Sure enough, although CBS zipped through the ending credits almost too quickly to read them, I saw that it was made in Finland. That explains it! The night I watched, it followed on the heels of the awful 1996 "The Return of Frosty" cartoon, which made the Finnish production seem that much more intelligent.

As a grown-up viewer, I thoroughly enjoyed the story -- a young reindeer searching for his father, whom he believes to be one of Santa's heroic flying squadron. The youngster is helped along his way by a fatherly, protective flying squirrel and a female ermine/weasel (?) who warbles pop tunes like an American Idol contestant. There's also a pink French poodle who appears suddenly and disappears mysteriously once her plotline is over (what becomes of her??). Yes, there are implications of reindeer one-night stands (how very Scandinavian of them!), and Niko's real dad turns out to have, shall we say, commitment issues (many kids will relate, I'm afraid). And there are some scary wolf villains -- but really, no scarier than the hyenas in "The Lion King," which this production seems to channel (one could say "copy" if one were ungenerous) more often than not. The digital character animation looks a bit clunky, with giant grinning amorphous faces that too often really look computerized -- but the backgrounds and landscapes are quite lovely. There are shots of the Scandinavian forest with the aurora borealis overhead that are very memorable. The musical score recalls Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" and almost seems a bit too grand for the room. But this is an hour-long cartoon that is really trying to be quite epic in its story and scope, and I think it's the first Finnish production (that I can recall, anyway) to make it to the U.S. TV market in such a big way (major network broadcast).

As for the scare factor of the big bad wolves -- really, can ANYTHING be scarier than the classic 1939 "Wizard of Oz"?? "Oz" gave me tornado and flying-monkey nightmares for years as a kid, but I loved it and watched it whenever it was on. I think a few good TV scares never hurt any child! Classic Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales are chock-full of scary and often quite violent situations; even the best Disney films (like "Lion King") are full of scares and sadness. I give the Finns points for offering a little darkness and scare factor, and not serving up sugary holiday syrup like "Frosty Returns" (or even the original 1960s "Frosty the Snowman," which also preceded "Flight Before Christmas" the other night -- yup, it may be a beloved classic, but wow, it's so sweet it makes your teeth hurt!).

So, yes, I recommend "The Flight Before Christmas" -- a Finnish production that is a quite worthy and surprisingly intelligent entry into the annual holiday animation derby.
~ Review by Rowana

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