Netflix’s Christmas offerings get an animated upgrade in this familiar but handsomely hand-drawn take on the Santa story.
Forget what Fred Astaire told you, the Netflix animated feature film Klaus is here to tell the true origin story of Santa Claus! Such a tale doesn’t begin in the North Pole or with Tim Allen, but with a selfish postman-to-be named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman). The son of a wealthy postal tycoon, Jesper is used to spending his days drinking expensive beverages and eschewing all sense of responsibility.
Clearly, there’s room for him to improve as a person, so his dad sends him off to be the postman for the chilly isolated town of Smeerensburg, ruled over by two warring families. Here, Jesper will have to somehow get these people (who prefer to punch one another rather than send each other mail) to exchange 16,000 letters or he’ll be cut off from his family’s wealth.
A seemingly impossible task is thrown yet another curveball when Jesper begins interacting with an anti-social woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons), who has a shed full of toys that could help Jesper reach his quota. From that basic premise, you can likely hazard a guess exactly where Klaus is going.
As twisted origin stories about Kris Kringle go, writer/director Sergio Pablos doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. The story of Klaus isn’t inherently naughty, but it would have been nice to see more twists on a familiar story. This especially applies to Jesper, a bog-standard selfish kids’ movie protagonist. He’s an intriguing reminder that Max Fischer would have been totally insufferable if he were an adult (and written by someone besides Wes Anderson).
Though Jesper’s self-centered nature results in a handful of darkly funny lines (like him telling a young girl to get off his porch because she’s trespassing), it does end up being laid on rather thick. Both his selfishness and inevitable humbling are paint-by-numbers at best, and outright grating at worst. At least the supporting characters in this Yuletide tale have a bit more personality to them; this is particularly true of Klaus, whose haunted, quiet personality contrasts with the typical pop culture portrayals of Santa Claus as a jolly old elf.
The movie’s animation, on the other hand, is dazzlingly distinct and helps to elevate the material. Klaus is one of the rare modern American (though apparently Spanish-produced) feature films to use hand-drawn animation. It’s a crime that such an art form has been almost entirely barred from American cinema, but in Klaus we’re reminded of the power this animation style can create.
In Klaus we’re reminded of the power [hand-drawn] animation can create.
This is especially apparent in the backgrounds of this movie, which tend to look as inviting and warm as the best storybook illustrations. You feel like you could truly walk into the world of Klaus, despite it being sketched out on paper and tablet screens. A similar visual quality is found in the characters, who are all hand-drawn yet have an impressive sense of dimensionality to them. It’s an animation technique similar to the one seen in Disney’s Oscar-winning short Paperman, though Klaus tends to use its own animation for more amusingly exaggerated means (especially in character designs).
While Klaus has a number of the same faults you’ll find in a number of run-of-the-mill animated family movies (including out of place pop song needle drops), more animated works could stand to take a cue from its visual creativity. While it hardly surprises in its tale of a gruff Saint Nick teaching cynical Scrooge-type lessons about giving, the engaging visuals of Klaus help to make it a reasonably amiable experience for the holidays.