The sheer fun of classic kids’ adventure movies is perfectly captured and slightly lampooned in the deliciously winning “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.” Novice features helmer Jalmari Helander expands on his hit shorts (“Rare Exports, Inc.” and “Rare Exports, Inc. — Safety Instructions”) to create a prequel in which a boy realizes an excavation near his Arctic hometown has released the original, evil Santa Claus from his frozen prison. Conceived with winking humor and a terrific visual style, the pic is a rare treat that could accrue cult status on screens followed by boffo ancillary.
The multinational producers will likely receive a very nice present following the film’s pre-holiday December release in Finland, and should find their coffers expanding beyond the traditional season, as the pic lacks the bland yuletide warmth that usually relegates Christmas tales to end-of-year showings. College campuses and midnight slots in fest berths should boost a fan base delighting in the tongue-in-cheek seriousness.
Helander channels a Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper vibe with a spot-on juxtaposition of child-centric characters confronting genuinely scary events, together with handsome lensing and the kind of unabashed orchestral sweep generally heard only in much bigger-budgeted pictures. In addition, as if cognizant of the superfluous nature of token females in these types of films, he’s eliminated women altogether.
Deep in the Finnish Arctic (stunning location work was done in Norway), young Pietari (Onni Tommila) lives with his father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), at an economically depressed reindeer slaughterhouse. Nearby, a mysterious American science expedition has stumbled upon a great find, apparently connected to the legend that Santa Claus is buried here: not the ho-ho-ho Father Christmas of fat suits and red complexion, but the original malevolent being of local lore.
The day before Christmas, Rauno and his rugged pals — parodies of tough Finnish backwoodsmen — stumble upon a field of dead reindeer. The adults assume a wolf is to blame, but Pietari and his friend Juuso (Ilmari Jarvenpaa) know there’s a more sinister force at work, and the following day they realize all the town’s children are missing.
Helander largely retains the same cast from his “Rare Exports” shorts, which took the form of infomercials on how wild Santas are trapped and domesticated before being exported to Christmas markets worldwide. It’s a sign of his skills as both director and parodist that the feature doesn’t feel like one of his earlier shorts stretched beyond viability.
By playing it straight, the ultra-serious tone captures all the stereotypes of the genre while gently poking fun at the conventions, so laughs go hand-in-hand with a genuine creepiness. Elements may frighten small children: Santa (Peeter Jakobi) has a truly evil mien, and nasty elves, played by naked elderly men, are more likely to torment kiddies than give them gifts.
Production values consistently impress, especially d.p. Mika Orasmaa’s grandiose widescreen lensing, which crisply captures the magnificent scenery. Even special effects, such as a nighttime helicopter airlift, are top quality. Large-scale orchestrations connect the film to emotion-tugging adventure thrillers, generating chuckles through their overblown nature yet still catching the viewer up in the elaborate themes.