Fans of acclaimed children’s literature author Astrid Lindgren probably know her best for Pippi Longstocking, but a new animated adaptation of another of Lindgren’s stories is about to give the famous red-head some serious competition. Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter brings to life Lindgren’s tale about a spirited young girl who grows up in early-Medieval Scandinavia and is raised by a clan of boisterous and good-natured robbers. It’s the first animated series for director Gorô Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s first computer-generated series to boot, but despite the new territory for the acclaimed animation studio, Ronja is a well-told traditional tale at its heart.
The word “traditional” has a strange connotation in these contemporary times. Kids cartoons populated with brightly colored characters and candy-coated settings in which action-packed adventures and wacky hijinks play out on an episodic basis are commonplace, as are the inevitable merchandise tie-ins that come with them, and have been since at least the early 1980s. Ronja is not this. Instead, it’s a story of the full spectrum of a young girl’s life, from her expectant parents’ anxiety over her impending birth, to the birth itself and her earliest days being fawned over by the robber clan, to her adventures (and misadventures) in the wilderness as a young, spirited girl. Ronja is a refreshing return to tradition and a masterful, magical exploration of life itself.
Before Ronja ever takes the stage, viewers are introduced to her parents: Mattis, the extremely emotional chief of the robber clan; and Lovis, the level-headed, no-nonsense caretaker who is the only woman in the clan until Ronja arrives. (Lovis is an amazing mother figure; her strength of character keeps the rowdy robbers–and her child-like husband–in line, and she does it with a reserved stoicism that is just remarkable.) Ronja’s birth wildly disrupts the robbers’ everyday life in the best possible way: Their daily heists from merchants and nobles passing through the forest are set aside in order to dote upon the young Ronja, much to the annoyance of Lovis who must keep them on task or risk a depletion in their supplies. These robbers are not of the Robin Hood sort but neither do they horde wealth; they rob for food and drink and clothing to keep the clan well provisioned.
Ronja’s birth also brings the magical side of this world into the story. A storm threatens to break on the night of her birth and a flock of harpies–predatory birds with the faces of women who were believed to spirit away souls–circles Mattis’ fort. When he attempts to scare them away at Lovis’ request, for they are making an awful racket, one of the harpies tells of a curse of ugliness that the storm-born child will have upon her. This curse doesn’t come into play at all except to cause Mattis distress, but the storm does bring with it another change: A lightning bolt strikes the fort and splits it in two, confining Mattis’ clan to one side of the newly christened Hell’s Gap.
This divided fort still plays home to Mattis and his robbers, but it also offers a refuge to the robbers of a rival clan led by Borka, along with his wife Undis, and his son, Birk. Here’s where Ronja takes on a decidedly Scandinavian slant on the “Romeo & Juliet” mythology as the young and adventurous Ronja, now old enough to run through the forest on her own, eventually comes across Birk, the only other child she’s ever seen. The relationship between the two of them is amazing to watch, especially for an animated kids’ show. It ranges from childlike curiosity, to immature rivalry, to outright hostility and distrust, to mutual friendship, to young love; every step along the way is masterfully handled and every bit as complicated as real-life relationships.
And while Ronja handles realistic family drama and the discoveries of childhood remarkably well, another strength is the absolutely stunning displays of nature in all its wondrous splendor. Time is taken to show sweeping forest vistas, snow-covered peaks, and placid, mirror-like lakes in a way that makes viewers wish we were right there with Ronja. It’s very obvious to see why Ronja is so enraptured by the natural bounty laid out before her and how her moods are so tied to the changing seasons. As if the visual beauty wasn’t enough, the music in Ronja is a delight–the theme song alone will be in your head forever–and actually plays an integral part in the story.
Another aspect that sets Ronja apart is the magical element of this modern fairy tale. In a sort of combination of Pippi Longstocking and David the Gnome, Ronja comes across a number of magical creatures during her romps through the wilderness: There are the relatively benign Rumphobs who live underground in little burrows, the incredibly creepy Gray Dwarves who will attempt to “bite and strike” humans if they are outnumbered, and the truly terrifying harpies, who will not hesitate to rend their prey limb from limb. There are some rather scary moments throughout the early goings of Ronja‘s first 13 episodes, but luckily our title character has the skills, smarts, and companions to get her out of trouble.
The only downsides to Ronja and its availability on Amazon is in the translation from Japanese to English. The usual “lost in translation” problems are more quirky than troublesome–the occasional odd expression, some forced dialogue, and a non-sequitur every once in a while–but it’s unfortunate that there is no Japanese audio option to select. I’d imagine that the narrative is much tighter with the original voice acting but the English-speaking cast still manages to turn in serviceable performances. However, it’s the story, the animation, and the high-soaring heart of this traditional tale that are the real gems.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Presented by Studio Ghibli and Saltkråkan (the Astrid Lindgren Company), all 26 episodes of Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter are available to stream on Amazon now!