A Reindeer’s Journey, available to stream now on Plex, is a story about a young reindeer’s first year living in Lapland — Finland’s northernmost region. Despite its appearance, it’s not a documentary; the footage is very real, taken by a camera crew that followed noteworthy wildlife living in the taiga. But the story is practically fiction with most of the wild creatures given narratives that anthropomorphize their behavior.
(In fact, according to the movie’s behind the scenes videos, not only was the lead reindeer a trained actor, but the wild animals’ behavior was also unnatural because the crew filmed so close to them. The director used this to their advantage to craft a story for the movie.)
This by no means dampens the impact of the movie. A Reindeer’s Journey is a pleasant watch that offers some comforting words about resilience and enduring the hardships of life. It’s an excellent pick for the holidays during a year that has seen many families face a rollercoaster of ups and downs throughout.
The narrator for the English version of the movie, Donald Sutherland, has a warm and gentle voice that one could listen to all day by the fireplace. With a glorious orchestral soundtrack playing in the background, Sutherland guides viewers through the frigid arctic as the cameras swoop from above, providing stunning aerial shots of what can only be described as a wasteland of snow.
“The world is a strange place,” says the narrator. “No one knows why we’re here.” As if that wasn’t enough to stir up an existential crisis, the movie continues by suggesting that we continue to exist despite not knowing because, perhaps subconsciously, we seek to experience new or familiar things. And so, “every morning, we have to get up, get going, and find our place with everyone else,” even when we feel like sleeping in for the day.
It’s an opening I’m not certain everyone would agree with — plenty of folks would rather just sleep in, let’s be real — but it shapes the story of the little reindeer that we soon meet.
The calf’s name is Ailo. He’s a baby born a couple days too early, explains the movie, because the mother misjudged the timing due to the warming temperatures brought about by climate change. At first, the mother appears torn between staying with the newborn or abandoning him to return to the safety of the herd. She shoves him away with her antlers when he stretches his neck towards her, making precious honking noises. There’s a tense moment when it seems like she’ll reject him.
“Unfortunately, sometimes a mother doesn’t exactly know how to be a mother,” the narrator softly explains. A rather unfair early judgement by the movie, I thought, especially since she soon returns to clean the baby once she confirms her herd has moved on.
From here the movie continues to weave a story about Ailo and the forest he lives in. It is said that baby reindeer have five minutes to learn how to stand, five minutes to walk, five minutes to run, and five minutes to swim. This point is repeated as Ailo spends his first few days trailing his mother as they follow the herd’s footsteps. At three days old, he’s crossing a frigid river to keep up with her, but not before another tense struggle against the current.
“Exceed your limits or stay there and wait to be conquered by the cold,” Sutherland warns. Thankfully, Ailo makes it across. By the time he’s five days old, he and his mother catch up to the rest of the group.
A Reindeer’s Journey then moves through the seasons, following Ailo as he migrates with the herd. “They don’t hunt,” the narrator says as the reindeer move. “They walk. They’ve been walking forever.” The herd follows an unseen path that has been passed down from generation to generation. But, in recent years, these trails have become disturbed by human activity and machinery.
“For us, a road connects people,” notes the movie as Ailo’s herd scrambles to run away from a threatening excavator. “For reindeer, it’s an insurmountable wall that frightens them and disrupts their ancient migration route.”
Between these harrowing moments are lighthearted scenes of other animals that live in Ailo’s habitat. The filmmakers take care to give these creatures a bit of the spotlight as well. Red squirrels and their never-ending hunt for food, bear cubs wrestling loudly, a wolf scolding her pups, polecat siblings harassing other animals, and lemmings that the movie calls the “chicken nugget of the Arctic.” (Poor little nuggets.)
Of note is the side story of the lonely arctic fox — a male seeking a lifelong mate. There are only 200 wild arctic foxes left in Lapland, the narrator informs us, which makes his search for a bae extra difficult. It’s easy to humanize and feel sorry for him.
Summer and fall pass quickly. We see Ailo running away from swarms of mosquitoes — an actual threat to a calf’s life, the movie notes, as the camera crew describes witnessing a reindeer accidentally drowning itself to get away from the biting insects. These bugs are no joke. Arctic mosquito swarms are big enough to kill a baby reindeer, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, draining the calves of blood and nutrition.
By autumn, Ailo is an adolescent watching adult males fight to win over the females in the herd. But he isn’t the only baby that has grown. The wolf pups seen earlier have also grown large enough to begin hunting. At this vulnerable age, Ailo is tracked by both wolves and wolverines looking for easy prey. He’s separated from the herd once again and must avoid a predatory wolverine as he looks for his mother.
The movie credits Ailo’s wild instincts in avoiding the clever beast. It juxtaposes his escape to the death of a tamed reindeer from a farmed herd — dead because it didn’t know how to flee from the wolverine.
“Do you think this world is tough?” asks the narrator as the reindeer’s corpse is dragged off screen. “Well, you’re right. […] It’s made of flesh and blood, water and fire, sorrow and joy.”
That’s not the most comforting thing to hear, but that’s not the goal of A Reindeer’s Journey. It’s here to say life can be tough, but we deal with it to experience both the good and the bad.
There’s more good to be found as the season turns to winter. The reindeer have to travel back to where they began before the snow becomes too deep to forage for food. At the summit of the mountains in Lapland the snow is thinner, due to the winds, and the herd can stay there for six months eating plenty of lichen. Ailo is older now. He’s exploring alone or with his peers. His mother is pregnant again, and he’ll soon leave her to become independent. In the meantime, he continues to travel with her.
“Do you remember, Ailo, your first steps in the snow when your hooves landed in the large footprints your mother made for you?” the narrator wonders. “She’s still looking out for you, but you are already walking ahead.”
Ailo’s first year of life is a success. Other creatures of the taiga have succeeded with their goals as well: surviving, learning, and growing in their harsh-yet-beautiful environment.
“[Y]es, there are terrible days,” Sutherland says. “There are heartbreaking days. Sad days, hungry days, cold days. But there are also lucky days. Happy days.” Although I’m sure there’s a lot of footage splicing going on to make the storylines in this movie work, I want to believe certain recurring creatures got their happy endings.
A Reindeer’s Journey wants to believe too, it seems. It ends on a hopeful note. Maybe unrealistically hopeful. Yet its message isn’t an unpleasant one for an audience that may be feeling both wary and optimistic for the upcoming new year.
“The world is a strange place,” the film repeats as it draws to a close. “Sometimes it’s so hard that you want to give up on it. To say, forget about me. Go on as if I weren’t here. And yet, each time that we decide to get back on our feet and face life squarely as it is, the world ends up smiling on us.”