Film Review – Klaus
What a beautiful film Klaus (2019) is! In an age where animation is dominated by three dimensional, CGI rendered output, here is a film that chooses to be both a throwback and a giant step forward in 2D animation. It looks and feels as though it were created with the traditional hand drawn approach, but the texturing, lighting, and shading give it a bold, fresh new look. It’s as though the visuals were created with water colors.
If there’s one thing Netflix can be given credit for, it’s their willingness to allow artists to take chances. They were the only company that would back Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), and now here they are distributing an animated film done in what many considered to be an outdated format. Director Sergio Pablos could not get a major American studio to support the film, so he had to go to Spain to get the necessary financing. The effort of Pablos and his team to get it Klaus made, along with Netflix’s commitment to get it released, goes to show that this type style still has a place in the film world.
The beauty of the animation means nothing if there isn’t a strong story and developed characters. Luckily, Pablos (along with screenwriters Jim Mahoney and Zach Lewis) gives us just that with a unique take on the Santa Klaus legend. This is a fun and heartwarming origin story that also operates with an anti-hate message. It has the qualities inherent in all great Christmas movies: a sense of earnestness and fun, with strong themes that can relate to the young and old, wrapped up in a narrative that doesn’t drag or fall into preachiness. I can see this being one that families will revisit every holiday season.
Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is a self-centered young man who has lived off the monetary comfort of his father (who owns a major postal service academy). In an attempt to teach Jesper responsibility, his father sends him to the faraway outpost of Smeerensberg, with the goal of delivering 6000 letters within a year or else being cut off from the family fortune. This task proves difficult for Jesper, as he discovers Smeerensberg to be a gloomy, cynical place, where feuding families don’t dare speak to others, let alone send letters.
Being the resourceful (aka desperate) guy that he is, Jesper finds an opportunity when he meets the large, stoic, white haired carpenter, Mr. Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Mr. Klaus – despite his somewhat cold personality – is a talented toy maker. Jesper uses this knowledge to create a scheme to have the children of Smeerensberg send Mr. Klaus letters telling him how well behaved they have been and asking for presents in return. Jesper considers this a win/win scenario, where he gets to meet his letter quota, Mr. Klaus gets to put his talents to good use, and the kids get rewarded for good behavior. Things take a turn when Jesper realizes that an act of charity and good will overrides his own selfish ambitions.
The voice acting and character work between the two main leads works well. Jason Schwartzman gives Jesper a kind of nebbish quality, toeing the line between charming and obnoxious. It’s a good starting point to allow Jesper to let go of his narcissism once he witnesses how his good deeds effect the overall mood of Smeerensberg. J.K. Simmons plays Mr. Klaus with different take than the normal Jolly St. Nick. This Mr. Klaus is anything but jolly, and the writing/directing even goes so far as to give him a sadder back story to fuel his motivation. It makes his eventual growth into the familiar “Santa” all the resonant and meaningful.
Animation gives filmmakers the advantage of inserting some clever visual gags and jokes. Pablos and his team fills Klaus with the appropriate amount without becoming too slap sticky. One of the best involves Jesper and Mr. Klaus losing control of their sleigh and reindeer, hurtling through the air right at the exact moment a kid looks out their window. If Mr. Klaus didn’t already have a larger than life reputation amongst the Smeerensberg kids, this moment solidifies that. I also enjoyed how the narrative came up with different ways of establishing Santa tropes, such as his love for cookies and milk, his Naughty List, and tying his toy giving to the Christmas holiday. Most of these occurrences are due to Jesper’s sense of self-preservation, but that’s what makes it so funny.
There are some peripheral characters that don’t as much attention as they probably deserve. Rashida Jones lends her voice to Alva, the local schoolteacher who’s so down on her luck that she sells fish out of her classroom to make ends meet. Alva has potential to be an interesting character, but it never feels like the narrative gives her enough opportunity to really evolve in a natural way. There’s also the family feud between the Ellingboes and Krums, Smeerensberg inhabitants whose hatred for one another goes back generations. We never really learn why the two groups despise each other so much – there’s even a bell that rings when it’s time for them to once again come to blows. They just seem like stock adversaries preventing Jesper and Mr. Klaus from spreading their holiday cheer.
But those are small gripes for a film that is as emotionally satisfying as it entertaining. Klaus is a bundle of good-natured fun, and anyone who says otherwise deserves a piece of coal in their stocking. I hope Klaus gains a following and proves to other studios that 2D animation is not a lost art, but a legitimate means to tell a story. The audience is there, we just need the people willing to make it happen.