'Klaus': Film Review

An unexpected charmer.

Spanish animator Sergio Pablos imagines an origin story for Saint Nick in a Netflix animated film.

A family holiday film that should sit especially well with members of the family who feel they could probably do without another holiday film, Sergio Pablos' Klaus invents its own unexpected and very enjoyable origin story for the big guy who gives out toys every Christmas eve. Shaking off most Yuletide cliches in favor of a from-scratch story about how even dubiously motivated generosity can lead to joy, it contains echoes of other seasonal favorites (especially, in a topsy-turvy way, Dr. Seuss' Grinch) while standing completely on its own. The beautifully designed 'toon comes at a good time for distributor Netflix, just as the Disney empire starts to move all its animated creations into its own exclusive realm: Saying goodbye to kiddie classics won't hurt quite as much if Netflix can find and support animation talent of this caliber.

Written by Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney from an original story by Pablos — who also wrote the story that became Despicable Me — the film begins in an unexpected place: the Royal Postal Academy in Norway. There we meet Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), a pampered kid who's a cadet in name only: His rich father, who's in charge of the nation's postal service (wait, does welfare-state poster boy Norway have a for-profit mail-carrying industry?), has insisted that he learn the family trade, but he's an absolute failure in the job. As a last resort, Daddy gives Jesper an ultimatum. He's sending him to the remote village of Smeerenburg (on Svalbard island, midway between the mainland and the North Pole) to get the town's defunct post office going. Until the kid manages to move 6,000 letters through his station, he can't return to the luxury he loves.

Smeerenburg proves worse even than this sheltered young man could imagine: It's a wasteland whose residents all hate each other, where violent feuds are the only form of social interaction, and where, if you were to stumble across kids building a snowman, they'd be pallid Addams-styled tots who've used carrots to stab the thing instead of giving him a nose. It's a kind of hell the Grinch could barely have envisioned for Whoville, and the town's two main clans (the Krums and Ellingboes) like it that way.

Outsiders with good intentions wither here — like the formerly bright-eyed schoolteacher Alva (Rashida Jones), who eventually turned her classroom into a fishmonger's shop in hopes of earning enough money to return home. The now-cynical Alva makes a good foil for Jesper, whose self-pity is of an energetic, clever variety that should play especially well with precocious tweens. But it takes little time for him to turn hopeless as well: Nowhere on this island of menacing guard-dogs and sabotaging neighbors can he find anyone who wants to send a letter to anybody else. The closest thing he can find — a child's sad drawing of himself in a lonely attic, which has blown out of the boy's window — is a missive sent unintentionally, with no intended recipient.

You see where this is going, but Pablos and company relish the journey — and, without pandering, they move just deliberately enough to let viewers delight in seeing how the pieces will fit together. We learn there's a giant hermit in the woods (J.K. Simmons), a woodworker whose sharp blades scare the heck out of young Jesper. He seems to make toys for nobody, just honing his carpentry skills — or maybe the hobby is a way to work through some old grief. Before Jesper will learn any of Mr. Klaus' secrets, he has to invent a reason for hundreds of children to write the toy-hoarder letters.

The movie's gently revisionist take on the Santa Claus legend is perfectly complemented by its visual style, which combines characters and settings that might've been designed a half-century ago with modern techniques. Animators take advantage of computers' capacity for convincing depth and movement, but maintain a hand-drawn look throughout. Designs have a universal, storybook feel, but the glum town's vibe brightens considerably with the introduction of a very specific element: A child from a nearby Sami community wears the primary colors of that culture's traditional clothing, and her people will have a big part to play once the woodworker gets serious about his gift-giving operation.

Aside from a third-act moment or two where, understandably, the film lands harder than it needs to on emotional points, Klaus' biggest missteps are in the three scenes where music in contemporary genres muddies the timeless atmosphere. Though never very distracting, these music cues will be sore thumbs if, as could conceivably happen, Klaus becomes something families find themselves watching decades from now.

Production companies: SPA Studios, Aniventure, Atresmedia Cine
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda
Director: Sergio Pablos
Screenwriters: Zach Lewis, Jim Mahoney
Producers: Gustavo Ferrada, Mercedes Gamero, Jinko Gotoh, Mikel Lejarza, Sergio Pablos, Marisa Roman, Matthew Teevan
Production designers: Szymon Biernacki, Marcin Jakubowski
Composer: Alfonso G. Aguilar
Casting directors: Matthew Jon Beck, Micah Dahlberg

PG, 97 minutes