By Hannu Koskela
When I was a small boy, my mother read me the Moomin books in the original Swedish. I loved them," recalls Dennis Livson. In those days, he never would have dreamt that as an adult he would become the one to think up, jump-start and be in charge of the animated Moomin television show and the Moominworld theme park in Naantali, south-west Finland. All were inspired by the Moomin books written by Swedo-Finnish author Tove Jansson between 1945 and 1970.
On the last day of the successful 2007 summer season, Livson has time to relax for a chat on a terrace by Naantali harbour. Just across the bay lies the presidential summer residence, Kultaranta, while in the background we can hear vespers being played on a trumpet from the steeple of Naantali's medieval church.
"People around here try to call me 'Moominpappa'. But that's not who I am. I'm Snufkin," says Livson with a smile, referring to Moomintroll's friend, a solitary vagabond musician.
"In 1973, I became seriously interested in the Moomins. I was working at Finland's first commercial television channel when a German-Polish production company proposed cooperating on their Moomin puppet animation series. I didn't like the idea, but I soon had my own 'aha!' experience. I wanted to make Finnish children's literature successful around the world.
"Starting in the 1970s, I kept asking Tove Jansson and her brother [and collaborator] Lars 'Lasse' Jansson to get the rights to the Moomins. That didn't work out so I had to put that dream on hold, as far as the Moomins were concerned.
"I quickly realised that if I wanted to carry out my idea of a non-violent Finnish animated series, I'd have to go overseas with the idea. In 1979 I went to work in the Netherlands, but I didn't like the job. So I set up my own production company there."
The fact that Livson, like the Janssons, spoke Swedish as his mother tongue made it easier for him to approach them.
"Finally, Tove softened up when she saw my animated version of Alfred J. Kwak. Then she realised that we shared a world of thought. She hadn't thought of the Moomins living in any way besides through her books. Eventually we all – my wife Yolanda, Tove, Lasse, [Tove's partner] Tuulikki Pietilä and me – flew to Japan, where I was ready to show them a three-minute Moomin animation pilot, done without permission.
"Tove said just three words: Dom lever ju! ('They're alive!') I knew that was it.
Tove authorised Lasse to oversee the animation. He spent a lot of time on an island near Porvoo. I got him a fax machine out there, and since there wasn't electricity, a generator, too. Every day we faxed him material for two hours, because that was as long as the petrol in the generator lasted."
Nothing could dampen his original enthusiasm. Now it is easy to look back on that era. Livson ended up producing 350 hours worth of nonviolent children's animation. Over a two-and-a-half year period, he and a Japanese animation team created 104 episodes of the Moomin show, each lasting 24 minutes.
Naantali's Moominworld was a sequel based on the TV series.
"Tove had received many proposals for Moomin amusement parks. They featured metal contraptions and trains shooting through the air. I told Tove that I wouldn't approve any of them. In the spring of 1992, I had another 'aha!' moment: Moominworld would be a theme park made only of stone and wood. It would be based around nature and the sea. And Tove said: 'Do it!'
"In April, 1993, we signed a lease at Naantali town hall and started 10 weeks of round-the-clock work before we opened Moominworld.
Ruissalo island in Turku looked like a wonderful option until the final stretch, but it fell through because of political schisms. Then I found a boat harbour in Naantali that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Fortunately for us, Mayor Jorma Kallio got the picture, so we settled down here."
"For me personally it's important that, through their children, parents also have a good time here. Central to the world of the Moomins are hugs and a good mood. The Japanese particularly love the Moomins because they offer a contrast to their own busy family lives, where they hardly ever see their fathers because they are busy with work. Moominmamma and Moominpappa are always together.
"Tove said that she gave the Moomins to the children of Finland and Sweden, but that I gave them to the world.
"In Naantali we were criticised because there were fears that the 42 species of birds that nest on Kailo island would be chased away. That didn't happen. Now there are 43 species nesting there. As an example of how nature-loving we are, there is an anthill at Moominworld with a sign next to it saying: Please do not disturb us! We're friends of the Moomins, too!"
But why does Livson identify more with Snufkin than Moominpappa?
"That's because of my spirit of adventure. Like Snufkin, I head south to warmer places for the winter, but I always return in the spring. The Moomins sleep all winter, so they don't have to go anywhere, but Snufkin does."
The Moominworld company is constantly investing and doing charity work, in the form of a fund and a golf competition.
"I consider myself a pensioner already, but I still try to be creative and to provide impulses for others. The Moomin characters are immortal and appeal to people from different cultures – thanks to the genius of Tove Jansson."
Originally published in "Breakthroughs - 90 Success Stories from Finland", 2007
Published in Virtual Finland in November 2008