Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Will Ferrell, Andrew Steele
Composer: Atli Örvarsson
Starring: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens, Pierce Brosnan, Mikael Persbrandt
Genre: Comedy, Music
It was a decade ago when my pastor, of all people, first introduced me to the Eurovision Song Contest. Every year he and his wife would open their home to anyone that was remotely interested in this wacky and eclectic international song competition. While I can’t say that I’m an avid follower, I was entranced by the glitzy and gaudy costumes, the entertaining performances that simultaneously produced giggles and grimaces, the sweet sense of national pride, and yes, there was even a song or two that was truly toe-tappingly brilliant and worth a repeat.
And that was all before the voting started! In-between chortles every time an awkwardly stiff yet overly excited presenter announced “Azerbaijan!” with a speed that plummeted off the tongue, my pastor would nod sagely as his predictions for how every nation would vote came true. I thought it was because he studied music alongside his theology degree, so he knew what song was truly the best of the bunch.
“No,” he corrected my assumption. “I just really know my European politics”.
When Australia stopped being merely a spectator and was allowed to start competing in 2015 (for reasons which I will link here because I know you’re going to ask and it’s way too complicated to explain), there was a quiet joy in seeing our local talent perform on the world stage.
Yet 2020 saw the cancellation of many things. The Olympics. Little Britain. My awesomely planned holiday to Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, Switzerland and Oberammergau. *sigh* Naturally the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was also a casualty. While nothing can compare to the real thing, it seems that Netflix has an odd Will Ferrell film to offer that may just scratch that musical itch and soothe anyone’s scrapped Icelandic travel woes.
Violence/Scary Images: The violence is over the top and falls a little into slapstick. There’s an explosion. A skin-charred ghost is seen. Close up on a chopped off arm. One character is choked, another is stabbed in the back—no gore or excessive amounts of blood seen. There are falls and almost lethal close calls on a stage. One character tries to punch another, though their hits have no effect.
Language/Crude Humor: One f-bomb. The s-word is said a number of times in quick succession. God’s name is used in vain.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters are seen drinking alcohol in pubs/bars/at parties. One person drinks so much they end up puking. There is mention of the use of opiates.
Sexual Content: There is a close up on a nude statue’s male genitalia. A major plot point revolves around a character jumping into bed (unclothed but no private parts are shown) with another. There are blatant, uncomfortable conversations about having sex with random strangers. There are brief references about the length of a character’s penis. One character is hinted to be a homosexual.
Spiritual Content: One Icelandic character has a strong traditional belief in elves. They are seen laying small gifts out as an offering in return for answered prayer. The elves go too far.
Other Negative Content: A father constantly berates his son. Lars can be blunt, rude and childish around other characters, sometimes unacceptably lashing out and damaging property in the process.
Positive Content: The film assesses the feasibility of dreaming big. It questions when one should put them aside, reassess, and whether the goal has shifted. It’s a story that teaches people to appreciate those who come along on our journeys, and when to step aside to let someone else achieve their own goals and dreams. It pays homage to a person’s humble beginnings and demonstrates the artistic expression and freedom in music.
Only a handful of films in the musical genre are released each year, and no doubt the most memorable one for 2020 will be Hamilton. For weeks this live recording of the popular Broadway musical has dominated the conversation amongst my theatre friends, whilst the sudden spike in Disney+ memberships only further demonstrate its appeal. As a film critic, I try to keep my mind open and widen my preferences as much as possible, and yet for some reason Hamilton made me pause…
I just have no desire to watch 160 minutes worth of rap battles about the founding fathers of America. Maybe it’s a result of America constantly headlining the world news that has found me weary of the barrage of the nation’s culture, or maybe it’s the fear of investing so much time into a film that I may ultimately not understand. Either way, a quick search of the one star reviews on IMDB confirmed my suspicions that I wasn’t the only one; Hamilton isn’t appealing to foreign audiences.
Yet that need for musical whimsy in 2020 still exists, so it’s no surprise that a lesser-known Netflix release centered around Eurovision is starting to build a cult following. It’s no secret that Eurovision is a fiercely European party-like affair, with invitations extended to some Middle Eastern countries, and Australia tagging along as a novelty though we’re quickly wearing out our welcome (but have some sympathy; holding a contest on our own continent is essentially just Australian Idol, and playing by ourselves is just boooooring). The United States is not invited. Most likely never will be (sorry, not sorry)! It’s like that high school movie trope where the protagonist is completely oblivious there’s a big party happening somewhere, though the twist is that when they eventually uncover the not-so-well-kept secret, they don’t really care they’re missing out anyway.
So it does immediately raise a few alarm bells when Eurovision fans find out this production is directed by an American, written by Americans, is yet another comedic vehicle for Will Ferrell, with Rachel McAdams, a Canadian, as a co-star. Just how one might question whether a non-American would be capable of conducting a culturally nuanced retelling of major historical events concerning the founding fathers of the United States of America, fans of Eurovision will be concerned over whether an outsider will understand the spirit of the annual European event.
This sentiment is common; it may explain why this movie has managed to fly under the radar despite its well-known cast. When talking about Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga with a number of my American friends, most balked on the prospect of seeing it, citing their fears of not knowing enough about the subject matter, and therefore “not getting it”. I understand. That’s my hesitation with Hamilton, after all. Although what’s hilarious is that there’s not much to get. It’s an international song contest; countries select their local American Idol talent equivalent and enter their best original, current song. Then it’s merely a mix of guffawing at the silly costumes, giggling at the outrageous staging, and occasionally tapping your toes to the odd decent pop song. When the time comes for the various nations to start voting for each other, simply watch the country with the best song and most political allies win! It’s just a light-hearted celebration of pop music, national pride, and kitsch culture which isn’t too serious (even though Russia unironically keeps trying to win the whole thing despite the entries become more and more “flamboyant” with every passing year).
So it’s a pleasure to report that Will Ferrell gets it. If anything, his style of comedy gels perfectly with the spirit of the competition itself. He and Rachel McAdams play Lars and Sigrit; two Icelandic childhood friends (possibly siblings) that share the dream of one day performing their music at Eurovision. Coming from a tiny remote township in the far north of the island nation, their goals are seen as too big and unattainable especially when it seems to outstrip their level of talent. The characters are goofy with their style, and maintain a sense of deluded optimistic innocence throughout the film, which naturally comes at odds with anyone that has a different opinion.
If this tale sounds familiar, it’s because this is your typical underdog story. The protagonist tries to attain an impossible dream against all odds, including constant disapproval from their loved ones (Pierce Brosnan gloriously fills the role of Lars’ father). Obviously the danger with using such a tired pattern of storytelling is that the whole film can end up feeling trite and well-worn. Yet Ferrell and McAdams use the clichés to their strengths.
On the surface, Lars and Sigrit are overly simplistic characters, and it would be easy to palm them off as nothing but a figment of silliness like the roles found in stoner flicks prevalent in the late 90s. They are borderline unrealistic as human beings to the point of parody. Indeed, some people may interpret a mocking tone from the film and find themselves getting offended on behalf of the Icelandic people. Please stop. I’m sure the descendants of Vikings with the backing of elvish mysticism have more than enough agency to speak up for themselves!
The beauty is that where some might see mocking, fans of Eurovision will see a heartfelt homage. Ferrell gets away with writing such caricatures because he grounds the characters with sincerity. Peel back the layers and Lars and Sigrit feature complex emotions and extremely relatable doubts and problems. There is an incredible maturity with the themes the movie tries to tackle, from questioning the longevity and realism of life-long dreams, to capturing the essence of expressing oneself to the world and the need to be heard. The main characters reflect the attitude towards Eurovision itself; it’s mostly fun and games, but deep down there’s a real sincerity in not only sharing one’s national pride and culture, but also a common unity in expressing oneself through song. As one Icelandic character yells in a pub, “We know they’re awful! But they’re our awful!” It’s a line that boldly acknowledges this weird mixture of goofy expressionism and national pride.
For the most part, audiences will know where Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is headed with its narrative since it does play to its clichés, though it does try to upend a trope from time to time in order to keep things from getting too stale. One that works is its treatment of Russian contestant and antagonist, Alexander Lemtov, magnificently played by Dan Stevens. He not only has a character arc that almost outshines Lars and Sigrit’s, but Stevens’ performance also comes close to stealing the limelight as well. If you tend to hate Will Ferrell movies, then at least try to hang in there for Dan Stevens—it is well worth it!
Another tampered trope involves the use of ghostly premonitions, though it’s a risk that doesn’t pay off. It slows down the film’s pace and the jokes fall flat (although it is more humorous upon reflection). There is also an anti-American sentiment that acts like a running gag throughout the film, which is rather tongue-in-cheek regarding the country’s lack of interest in Eurovision. It tries to elicit its humor through awkwardness, though it too is also rather hit and miss in landing its comedic timing.
Some Christians may worry about the film’s slip into crude humor territory. These types of jokes are on par with what is seen in Anchorman. That is, the topic of sex is broached, though the characters have a delightful sense of innocence (though not unrealistic ignorance) about them that halts a complete downhill roll into the gutter. The sex-related jokes aren’t prevalent enough to outstay their welcome; essentially there are some cringe-worthy moments, though it’s limited to only a handful of scenes and there are certainly worse movies out there (e.g. Coffee & Kareem, anything with Amy Schumer). Their inclusion into the film however does derail the pace and destabilizes some sense of immersion if that’s not your style of comedy.
Yet the film’s biggest criticism comes in the shape of a massive plot hole. One issue that is constantly mentioned is that, should Iceland win, then it means the small island nation of less than 400,000 inhabitants must host the next song contest. Such an endeavour will bankrupt the country. Now, there is an element of truth to this. Since Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic blast cheapened plane tickets and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty showcased the country’s natural beauty, Iceland has experienced massive over-tourism problems where the numbers of international visitors frequently outnumber locals. Hosting Eurovision would only further exacerbate this worrisome issue. The film may also touch on why some countries seemingly enter lacklustre performances. Yet the rules of Eurovision state that should a country not have the facilities or financial means to host the contest, then they can defer it to one of the larger nations. So, while a valid concern, it’s irritating to see this issue brought up multiple times throughout the film and treated with such a sense of crippling finality.
Since the movie operates as a love letter to Eurovision, this lack of detail will prove to irritate fans. Another aspect is the fact that Edinburgh is the host city in the film, meaning that the United Kingdom won Eurovision the previous year. …It’s unclear whether this is a sly joke or not. Apparently the Icelandic language and accent is mangled, though really we must give the actors some props for at least having the guts to attempt one of the world’s hardest languages. For the most part however, there are a lot of enjoyable nods and inside jokes for Eurovision fans, from cameos, performances that pay homage to previous entrants, to a massive dance sequence that is truly a pleasure to watch.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is not a musical in the traditional sense, where characters use song to progress the story. Rather the film’s subject matter is heavily centred around music, much like last year’s hit pseudo-musical Yesterday. There are some great toe-tapping numbers. Hamilton might have this film “Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned”, but Fire Saga has “Ja Ja Ding Dong”. On repeat. If “Volcano Man” doesn’t get you into the mood, then this film isn’t for you. For many, this movie will encourage you to dance, jiggle and boop, making you forget the existence of COVID-19 for the length of its runtime. Can you expect much more from a Will Ferrell movie?
Be careful. This film oozes so much charm and light-hearted banter, that it’s easy to dismiss just how much you’ll deeply care about the fate of these characters. The final moments hit and suddenly you’re awash with emotion. The familiarity with the underdog narrative lulls us into a sense of complicity. You’ll instinctively know where the story must head, what direction the narrative will take, and telegraph everything beat for beat. You’ll identify every unaddressed issue and develop a sense for what must be done to resolve everything. You’ll watch as it all builds up and up to a massive finale…
A lot of bad movies will falter at the last step and underwhelm the audience. The “big” moment doesn’t end up being that big. But this is definitely not a bad movie. That ending! It nails it! Every theme, all the character arcs, every nuance is beautifully summarized in a single scene. This film delivers on every promise in such a gorgeous cacophony of soul-yearning acknowledgement. It needles and taps on the wishes and desires of forgotten childhood dreams wrapped in nostalgia, forcing your heart to sing alongside Lars and Sigrit despite the differences in culture. It will make you feel proud to be Icelandic, even if you’re from a country so far down under that you live in a different hemisphere.
Yeah, you probably weren’t expecting that from a Will Ferrell movie! Add this to your list of guilty pleasure flicks for 2020, and watch it on repeat. Especially “Ja Ja Ding Dong”!
+ Will Ferrell’s humor pairs well with the subject matter of Eurovision.
+ Easy to engage with a simple plot.
+ Inside jokes and cameos.
+ Catchy songs.
+ Sneaky emotional ending.
+ Ja Ja Ding Dong!
- The sex jokes feel jarring compared to the rest of the movie’s tone.
- Eurovision fans will be bothered by a major plot hole.
- Some viewers will do that thing where they get unnecessarily offended on behalf of other people without first asking if such a thing is offensive in the first place.
- UK won?
- Dami Im should’ve won.
- The elves went too far…
- Too much Eurovision. Not enough Ja Ja Ding Dong!
The Bottom Line
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a lot like chocolate ice cream. It’s a safe bet. You’ve had it before. You know you’ll enjoy it. It may seem predictable, but give it a chance and you’ll discover just how awesome chocolate ice cream can be. If you’re a fan of Eurovision you’re in for a treat, and if you’re not one yet, then this is a wonderful entry point.