The story of the Moomins, visible within and between the frames of documentary Moomin Memories, is – most crudely – the story of a journey from the radical to the sentimental. The moomins begin visual life as marginalia in Tove Jansson’s political cartoons, and their current incarnation is as Japanese kiddie icons. In between come the childrens’ books that made them famous – or famous to me at least.

The documentary hardly mentions these books, looking instead at the characters’ lives in other media – comic strip, TV series, stage show, merchandising. It is firmly on the side of the sentimental: the conceit is that the programme is narrated by a moomin, and we see interviews with the various current keepers of the Moomin brand, including the Japanese marketer who confirms that the characters’ future lies in pitching them towards younger children. At the same time, a reissue program for Tove Jansson’s 50s Moomin comic strips suggests that adult afficionadoes will be well catered for.

The moomin books fit oddly with both these strands of moominology. Undoubtedly written for children, they also trace a journey out of childhood, as Moomintroll grows up and his friends and playmates drop out of view. The documentary suggests that Jansson had stopped writing about moomins by the 1960s, ignoring the early 70s publication of Moominvalley In November, a strange, lonesome and strong book in which various friends and passing acquaintances of the moomin family wait for them to return home, and confront – successfully and otherwise – what they’ve projected on to the family. This book isn’t one that can be easily turned into merchandise, but it also doesn’t chime that well with the comic strip version of the moomins, which plays them as a satirical bourgeois clan, like a more knowing version of the earlier novels’ adventures and hijinks.

Where the film really intrigued was in showing the moomin characters’ 1950s context. Not only did their lives as radical margintrolls overlap with the series of novels for children, but they also were well known in newspaper strips for adults and a stage play. Their current multimedia existence is nothing new – they were always designed to float between formats. But their current incarnation is still different – the moomins of the 40s and 50s made little distinction between appealing to adults and children, their existence happily crisscrossed age lines. This element may well have vanished in the Japanese moomin series, for all that Tove Jansson herself approved it.

Jansson disapproved, we learn, of a previous attempt, a clip from which featured a Mymble getting drunk – as Mark S pointed out after the film, the later 60s Moomin strips apparently featured psychedelic drugs, so the concept of intoxicated moomins was already formed! Other versions of Moominhood failed to even get a disapproving mention – the odd European puppet version, more keyed to the tone of the novels, seems to have vanished from approved Moomin history.

The Moomins are a global brand now, and they seem to be heading in a direction a fair few global children’s brands have gone – highly merchandised avatars for some vaguely humanist, hard to argue with, not very motivating values. Moomin Memories‘ most memorable claim strikes this note: “The Moomins are the one thing celebrated by Palestinians and Israelis”. If true – possibly this is quite a big if – they must represent something either very profound or hugely banal. Looking at the history of the Moomins through this film, you might see traces of both.