More of an ode than a film

review by Gabriela Delgado

Amongst the many changes put into play as the world desperately tries to accommodate and adapt to the effects of COVID-19, emerges the reluctant, now weakened Hollywood, whose entire industry has seen a significant stagnation in releases and production.

Its latest Netflix refugee, Will Ferrell’s Eurovision movie, would’ve premiered in May 2020 to coincide with this year’s Eurovision competition, which was scheduled for mid-May in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Instead of a celebratory release, it received a delayed, straight-to-digital premiere. This decision could make or break the movie, but unfortunately, I don’t see it gaining popularity over the following weeks, as Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (here on referred to as Eurovision) is more an ode to the beloved, quirky competition rather than a full, captivating story like it pretends to be.

I’ve watched the actual Eurovision competition twice since I became aware of its existence: in 2014 and 2015. What prompted me to watch in the first place was a dedicated group of Europeans that couldn’t help but show their excitement on Tumblr that a drag queen called Conchita Wurst, the stage persona of Austrian drag performer and artist Thomas Neuwirth, had moved on to the final day of the competition.

As per usual with something that intrigues me, I looked up the wikipedia page for Eurovision and became fascinated immediately. The concept of an international singing competition where each European country would send their best every year sounded surreal but fun, and a few Youtube videos later I was convinced this was something I needed to see.

I became even more interested after finding out that ABBA themselves, a group I’d grown up listening thanks to my dad and aunt, had participated for Sweden and won in 1974. I excitedly relayed this information to my dad the day of the show, and we decided to watch it to experience it for ourselves.

Given that ABBA went on to sell over 380 million albums following their career at Eurovision, it was no surprise to see them appear in Eurovision as the role models for Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’ characters. Ferrell and McAdams step into the shoes of Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, the titular duo Fire Saga, whose dreams of representing Iceland in the newest edition of Eurovision is realized when their fellow Icelandic hopefuls fall victim to an ‘accident’ that leaves them as the only possible choice.

On their stay in Edinburgh for the competition, the two meet other international contestants like the flamboyant Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), and discover that the feelings they have for each other might be mutual after all. The story goes as you might predict, and that’s the root of the problem with Eurovision.

I would say I’m more a fan of McAdams than I am of Ferrell. I’ve enjoyed her in both dramatic and comedic roles, with my favourite being her iconic character Regina George in the 2004 comedy Mean Girls, to no one’s surprise. She does a fine job in the film as a primary school teacher with the voice of an angel who dreams of settling down with the man she loves. She is ultimately the more sympathetic, likeable character out of the duo.

On the other hand, Will Ferrell plays the role of a manchild whose only purpose is to win Eurovision without caring for his long-time friend’s well-being. Will Ferrell is charismatic enough that he stopped me from immediately hating the character, but I was never a fan of Lars like the movie so clearly wants me to be. Some of his jokes, particularly the ones that offer commentary on the music industry and other countries, landed perfectly with me—his remarks about Americans seemed to have come straight out of my mind and I couldn’t help but nod along to his words—but Lars’ personality didn’t do him any favours.

The story gets more and more simple as it progresses, starting with an interesting concept—that of two children from a small town whose country has never won the competition before—towards a love triangle that never feels real or threatening to our main couple, to a predictable ending that brings no satisfaction.

The addition of an assortment of past contestants and winners from the real Eurovision also become distractions, turning the film into a game of “I know who that is!” rather than adding to Lars and Sigrit’s story. When they popped in during a magical, admittedly impressive mashup of various pop songs including Cher’s “Believe” and ABBA’s “Waterloo”, I committed the movie viewer sin of picking up my phone and looking up every single one.

The same situation happened again whenever a group would perform in before and after Fire Saga. The film does such a great job of showing the viewer why Eurovision is so loved and expected every year, why its quirkiness has become a tradition that has lasted over sixty years, that it forgets its protagonists are meant to be centre stage.

With Eurovision being Will Ferrell’s passion project, as he became fascinated with the competition in 1999 after his wife introduced him to it, it’s easy to see why he would show so many performers doing what they do best. I got so invested in the musical display, that I was disappointed when it stopped in favour of exhaustingly slow plot development. Unfortunately, the pacing of the film drags the story; Eurovision could’ve easily been an hour and a half rather than its two-hour runtime and it could’ve been far less boring.

The portrayal of Iceland is visually stunning and respectful towards its people and culture, with little jokes here and there like Sigrit’s fascination with elves, a traditional Icelandic folk figure, and a truly unexpected CGI shot of two whales in the sea as the characters converse. The Icelandic government reportedly paid up to a million dollars of the production cost as an incentive from the country’s film industry.

The introduction of the fictional folk song “Ja Ja Ding Dong” composed entirely for the film, is a fun, recurring number that seems to have resonated with many just as it did with me, but once again proves how the film’s musical elements are the only segments keeping the viewer engaged. Furthermore, Swedish singer Molly Sandén, who provided additional vocals that were blended with McAdams’ to produce a more impactful harmony, brings such a depth of emotion that easily evokes the European sound and emotion behind Eurovision.

What the film lacks, it tries to make up in with heart, and it undoubtedly achieves that with its music. But is it enough to save it? Only time will tell, and time aplenty Netflix subscribers have to judge for themselves.

Ultimately, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is an ode of love, respect and admiration to the competition it’s trying to celebrate, but its shortage of engaging storylines and characters make it a mediocre film. It does little to interest audiences who don’t know what Eurovision is, but it does so unapologetically, instead choosing to celebrate with those who already regularly watch and enjoy it. While the musical numbers from past Eurovision alumni are stunning, and the original songs can stand on their own, the film can’t seem to decide on what it wants to do with its main characters.

As a result, it drags through two incredibly long hours that might leave even the biggest Eurovision fan itching to look up past competition videos instead of having to endure an appealing story just for some nostalgia.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
directed by David Dobkin
steaming on Netflix