For centuries, the Ash Lad, or Espen Ash Lad (Espen Askeladd), has been the hero in Norwegian folk tales, kept alive by traditional story telling through spoken culture and fireplace education. Espen is often portrayed as the youngest of three brothers, with the older brothers appearing to have much greater chances of success in life. For example, one brother might be extremely well read, whereas the Ash Lad is looked down upon as a seemingly lazy loner, who spends too much time sitting by the fireplace lost in thought, poking the ashes. As the tales unfold, important and dangerous tasks are given Espen and his brothers, but where his older competitors fail due to be tied to conventional thinking, Espen succeeds in finding creative solutions that work, thanks to his smartness, tactics and empathy for others. Espen Ash Lad outwits trolls, dodges charging unicorns and gets a magic Viking ship to transport him so he ultimately saves the princess. One important aspect of the stories is that Espen always wins in the end, and his prize is typically the love of (and marriage with) the princess, and half the lands of the King. Espen Ash Lad represents the small man who succeeds by going out of the box, an attractive thought not only in Norway’s poor agricultural past, but even today. The character is probably best described and documented in stories collected and told by Peter C. Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the mid 1800s. The work of Asbjørnsen & Moe can be compared to that of the Grimm brothers in Germany around the same time. The tales they collected present the “classical” Ash Lad. In other stories, collected by others, the character and his brothers are presented as mere scoundrels, even thieves.
Espen Ash Lad, as interpreted by Theodor Kittelsen (1857 – 1914).
More than a dozen stories exist and Espen Ash Lad is a solid and enduring part of Norwegian folk tales and mythology, but surprisingly (or maybe not, considering film making politics in Norway up until fairly recently) no feature film adaption has been made of any of the stories. Granted, many Norwegians hold the 1961 animated puppet film Ash Lad and the good helpers close to their chest. After all, it was made by innovative director-producer Ivo Caprino, whose animated short films and the feature-length Pinchcliffe Grand Prix are not only classics, but some of the most loved Norwegian pop culture. Due to technology, attitudes to source material and maybe politics, Caprino’s 15-minute short reamined the definitive cinematic adaption for more than 50 years. By coincidence, the new film’s director is the grandson of Bjarne Sandemose, Ivo Caprino’s chief studio engineer.
Caprino’s version of the Ash Lad.
The movie that opens in Norwegian theatres tomorrow is Ash Lad in the Hall of the Mountain King (original title: Askeladden i Dovregubbens hall), a brand new big budget feature from the director of two previous successes, Cold Prey 3 (2010) and Ragnarok (2013), Mikkel Brænne Sandemose. Once upon a time, more specifically sometime in 1800s, a poor farmer’s son, known as Espen Ash Lad (17), is the youngest of three brothers. He is a cheerful and adventurous young man with a big heart and vivid imagination, but is easily led astray. He has never quite seen eye to eye with his brothers Per (20) and Pål (19), because Per has zero tolerance for Espen’s boyish shenanigans and tendency towards laziness. At the kingdom’s palace, princess Kristin is set to marry the dashing but evil prince Fredrik, against her will. According to an old legend, if she doesn’t marry before her 18th birthday, the giant troll known as the Mountain King (Dovregubben) will awaken from his slumbers and take her away to his cave in the mountains. Kristin escapes from her wedding and flees on horseback, only to be kidnapped by the troll. The next day the King announces that he will reward whoever can find and bring back his daughter. The lucky man will get half the kingdom and the princess’ hand in marriage.
To the newspaper Dagbladet, Mikkel Sandemose said in 2015: -I love adventure movies, and to get financial support for something as adventurous as this movie, is great fun. Our aim is to revitalize the Ash Lad, who may not linger at the top of the minds of the youth today as much as before. We’ll have both the adventure and the comedy, to align with people’s expectations. He added that a big part of the movie will be “the essence of Norwegian nature” and that landscapes in a way will be major characters in the film. Familiar Norwegian scenery such as Hardangervidda, Gaustatoppen and Vøringsfossen were chosen as some of the locations for the shoot. The film has already been compared to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the director said to NTB that he is not particularly inspired by those movies, but that similarities may exist in the original material: -Tolkien picked up things from Nordic mythology and folklore, so there might be some relations there anyway. However, I feel we communicate something which is more grounded and Norwegian, things people will recognise. Sandemose lists Steven Spielberg, Terry Gilliam and The Goonies as some of his favourites.
Maipo Film’s producer Åshild Ramborg said that the Norwegian folk tales have everything audiences would want from a feature film; spectacular images, action and humor. The film is firmly rooted in folk tale fantasy, with water spirits (nøkken), huldra (a female forest creature), an old woman with her nose stuck in a tree stump, and of course the mountain troll itself making appearances. The film’s script is new but based on the stories of Asbjørnsen & Moe. -I have to applaud our writers who has added something new and fresh [to the story], while at the same time digging deep in the familiar tales. I assume there will be reactions, but I am very glad for our version. I think it will make children interested in folk tales, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose said to NTB a few days ago. Maipo producer-CEO Synnøve Hørsdal said: -Obviously we are not only targeting Norwegian cinema-goers, but also international audiences. Given the renewed interest in the fantasy genre and Nordic mythology, I think it will perform well abroad. The film has been pre-sold to more than 10 countries, among others the Nordic countries, the Baltics, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey and China.
A sequel is already in the works and has been given 1.6 million euros (1.9 million dollars) in financial support from NFI, the Norwegian film institute. A third movie is also in the planning stages, and the film company Maipo plans to spend 180 million kr (19 million euros / 22 million dollars) alltogether on the trilogy. Maipo is one of Norway’s leading film production companies, with more than 30 features and TV series under their belt since 2000. They recently produced the Solan & Ludvig and Doctor Proctor movies.
Film industry experts suggest that the first Ash Lad film could draw 300-350.000 people to cinemas this fall, but will they be encouraged by the critics? Ash Lad has been reviewed by several newspapers and websites:
- VG said the film “will probably not survive as a classic, decade after decade” but that it will “find its core audience this fall” and awarded a 3 of 6 rating.
- NRK’s Film Police concluded that “parents will survive and children will be entertained” and awarded a 3 of 6 rating.
- Dagbladet’s reviewer said the film felt like “the work of amateurs, without the charm or feeling that could have kept it floating”, followed by a 2 of 6 rating.
- Filmfront.no asked “why this oldfashioned comedy, why the cardboard characters […] as if the film was a 1920s cliché, and not a unique film for 2017?” which amounted to a 3 of 6 rating.
- Filmmagasinet.no also awarded a 3 of 6 rating due to the feeling of “one-dimensional local amateur theatre”.
- Aftenposten said the film would be “a warm adventure for children to enjoy” but that it “lacks the magic”. A 3 of 6 rating even there.
- Dagsavisen thought the film “worked as easy entertainment for children but as an adventure for an international audience, it falls flat”. Another 3 of 6.
Some of the cast members.
The 134 minute Ash Lad in the Hall of the Mountain King has a budget of 53 million kr (about 5.6 million euros / 6.7 million dollars) and production started in August 2015, with the shooting taking place during spring and fall 2016. The film has been produced by Synnøve Hørsdal og Åshild Ramborg, based on a script by Aleksander Kirkwood Brown and Espen Enger. The film stars Vebjørn Enger, Eilie Harboe, Mads Sjøgård Pettersen, Elias Holmen Sørensen, Allan Hyde, Gisken Armand, Thorbjørn Harr, Arthur Berning, Robert Skjærstad, Synnøve Macody Lund, Gard B. Eidsvold and Ida Ursin-Holm. It opens September 29th in cinemas all over Norway.