Now Available on DVD
AKA: Joulutarina; En julberättelse
Thanks to Christmas carols and television specials, by the time children who celebrate the holiday hit grade school, they can recite the entire roster of names possessed by Santa's tiny reindeer including the red-nosed Rudolph. And while they can additionally fill in the blanks regarding how many times Santa Claus checks his "naughty or nice" list to differentiate between the lumps of coal for stockings and the toys built by the hardworking elves at his workshop in the North Pole, the one thing they can't answer is just how in the world the bearded man became jolly old St. Nick.
In this creatively ambitious and impressively original Finnish made family film, director Juha Wuolijoki and screenwriter Marko Leino (who collaborated with two others including the director on the heartwarming storyline) bravely offer a new narrative explanation that centers on the coming of age of the man Christmas revelers likewise came of age with while celebrating in their youth.
Exquisitely capturing the snow covered desolate Lapland village where the film is set thanks to first rate lensing by cinematographer Mika Orasmaa, we're presented with a Dickensian tale of tragedy and triumph centering on the evolution experienced by a boy named Nikolas as he becomes the sleigh driving gift giver who delights millions of children each and every year.
After losing his parents and sister in an icy tragedy near the start of the film, the young goodhearted Nikolas matures quickly as the residents of the humble fishing community decide that the best way to take care of the boy is to each take turns sheltering, clothing, feeding, and nurturing Nikolas for a single year. In this cooperative environment, Nikolas then finds himself with a brand new family and home every single Christmas morning.
Although the locals are stunned when the reclusive Scrooge-like carpenter Iisakki takes in Nikolas after they're hit by a perilous shortage of resources, Nikolas is the most surprised individual of all when he realizes that instead of a mere young manservant for the grump he must call "master," he becomes a far more gifted woodworker.
Whittling presents annually which he delivers for the former "brothers and sisters" with whom he'd previously resided, Nikolas' carving skills improve even more under the master's tutelage especially when he finally gains access to Iisakki's hidden workshop. Embarking on a tradition of bringing the residents their gifts-- sight unseen-- every Christmas morning as the amount of presents and their quality improves with age, eventually Nikolas makes strides. In doing so, he goes from heartbroken orphan to becoming Father Christmas by relishing in his anonymity, discovering the traveling benefit of reindeer and moving towards that famous red suit.
Initially, however you may find yourself distracted by the lack of synchronization between the audio in English and visual disconnect of mouths moving rapidly in the original Finnish audio track. Luckily, the combination of voice talent by actors including the incomparable John Turturro, Noah Emmerich and Katherine Borowitz, along with the truly involving story and high quality of the feature releasing from Lighting Media and Anchor Bay Entertainment makes it much more successful than a traditional foreign dubbed work.
While I suspect that it's only a matter of time before someone remakes the movie completely in English since foreign films are always ripe fodder for Hollywood interpretations, honestly it's one that you wouldn't need to see in a different format even as I saw it in a simple screener, minus any bells and whistles including bonus features or extra material. Unfortunately, due to its unimaginative new title of Christmas Story, I fear this Finnish film will simply blend into the scenery among other holiday releases.
However, despite its melancholic opener and general audience reluctance to foreign films, this uplifting PG-rated movie is one I urge parents to seek out to offer a new alternative to the primarily commercial approach of Santa Claus movies.
A beautiful work filled with the ingredients that make our classics including A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker and other holiday movies so endearing, director Juha Wuolijoki's Story also garnered prestigious accolades in time for its DVD debut including a seal of approval by The Dove Foundation and an All-Star honor by the well-respected Kids First! Coalition for Quality Children's Media.
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