When Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) distinguishes himself as the postal academy’s worst student, he is stationed on a frozen island above the Arctic Circle, where the feuding locals hardly exchange words let alone letters. Jesper is about to give up when he finds an ally in local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), and discovers Klaus (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons), a mysterious carpenter who lives alone in a cabin full of handmade toys. These unlikely friendships return laughter to Smeerensburg, forging a new legacy of generous neighbors, magical lore and stockings hung by the chimney with care. An animated holiday comedy directed by Despicable Me co-creator Sergio Pablos, KLAUS co-stars Joan Cusack, Will Sasso and Norm Macdonald.
Christmas is here, so Netflix has launched its first feature length animation to its holiday-offensive arsenal in the form of “Klaus”. Aimed firmly at the family market, it’s the directorial debut of Disney alumni Sergio Pablos and his Madrid-based animation studio that offers heartfelt fun and an alternative take on the origin of Santa. The film is a melting pot on two key fronts: firstly with its international production staff and secondly with its blend of hand drawn frames being assisted by computer lighting. So, how well does it work out?
The story itself is a pretty straightforward but offers a number of interesting ideas. Jesper is the selfish son of the Postmaster General who, due to his awfulness, gets given the job of working the post office in Smeerensburg, a town approximately 100 leagues from anywhere else. Covered in all the snow, it’s also home to two warring clans (the Ellingboes and the Krums), a pisstaking ferryman, and an aggressively disenchanted school teacher. It’s a horrible place filled with horrible people and it’s perfect for Jesper because he’s a horrible spoilt scrote.
Whilst trying to convince the locals to send letters, rather than comedically slaughtering each other, Jasper ends up going to the spooky woodsman’s hut and meets the titular Klaus: a monster of a man with a passion for making amazing toys. Jasper is first forced into helping Klaus deliver a toy to an upset child, and then goes whole hog into getting kids to send letters to Klaus in return for toys. From there, through a series of comedic happenstance and general adventure, all the trappings of the Santa Claus traditions are built up and plot points get resolved. Hearts are warmed, minds are changed, morals are shown, and everything is wonderful until the traditional gut-wrenching ending that’ll leave you face deep in a cushion.
None of that is said in any kind of negative, it’s just that anyone over the age of 12 will see plot points signposted and know exactly what to expect. You could be disappointed by this, but that’s like being upset that the label “Delicious Chocolate Christmas Log” delivers on your expectations. It’s a Christmas story about goodwill, happiness, and doing nice things for people, and it does that with great charm and surprising levels of character even if you broadly know where everything is going.
This is undoubtedly helped by the fact it looks amazing. Not just on a technical level (although it really does look great there as well) but with fantastic character and environment designs. The world of the Ellingboes and Krums is both stylised and stylish, carrying comedy and dread in equal measure. The people and the buildings are both sinister and believable, like a coherent mad house you just can’t get out of. The land of Smeernsbrug is similarly delightful, showing off the majesty of arctic hostility and barren beauty. You absolutely wouldn’t want to live there, but the views will take your breath away.
The voicework is similarly on point, with just the right levels of enthusiasm and pathos to make it all work. Everyone is as larger than life that such a film demands, but no performances move into being overblown. The fast energy of Jason Schwartzman as Jesper and the slow, measured approach of J.K. Simmons as Klaus are especially noteworthy as they work so well as counterpoint to each other, and both of them change with just enough speed as their characters and relationship develops. Similarly Joan Cusack and Will Sasso carry enough similarity as the heads of the warring clans to hammer home the stupidity of their conflict, without being too obviously a copy of each other. Everyone else is similarly wonderful, but those are the highlight performances and spotlight the care taken on that part.
Negatives are few and far between. It’s pretty much on the nose with its length, it knows exactly how seriously to take itself, and it’s filled with ideas and wonder. It may get a little “by the book” once you recognise the key gimmick to it, but that’s only going to be a problem if you want a Christmas movie that does something other than be a Christmas movie. Kids will love it, adults will enjoy it, and everyone can watch it and get something out of it. It’s not going to change the world, but it may just add a little sparkle to your festive season.
Klaus is available to stream on Netflix now