Netflix's Christmas Movie ‘Klaus’ Is a Hand-Drawn Holiday Marvel
From the creative mind behind Despicable Me and Smallfoot comes Netflix's Klaus, a Christmas movie nearly 10 years in the making and one of the most charming animated features of the year. The holiday film about Santa's origin story re-creates the hand-drawn, 2D magic that's often been missing since Toy Story introduced 3D computer-generated imagery in 1995. But here, writer-director Sergio Pablos brings the tradition back, gifting the audience with a nostalgic visual style to create a heartwarming tale of love, family, and goodwill.
Pablos -- who, along with writing the story for the two aforementioned films, had a hand in animating Disney classics like Tarzan, Hercules, Treasure Planet, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame -- begins his latest work with a sentimental recollection of the lost art of letter-writing. But, as the film notes, there's still one holdout being written and sent annually by children around the world: a letter addressed to Santa Claus. Klaus runs with this idea and takes it all the way back to the beginning of this tradition -- why kids even write letters to Santa at all -- in a fresh, joyful way.
The film follows Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), a spoiled and rich youth of privilege who's a cadet at a Royal Postal Academy. He's not doing much training, however; he would rather lounge on a divan in a tent on camp while being served espresso. Jesper wants nothing more than to live in his wealth, and purposefully fails his training to avoid doing work. But his father runs the Royal Postal Service and hits his son with a wake-up call: To make Jesper learn responsibility and work ethic, his father makes his son a postman and sends him to Smeerensburg, a secluded island cut off from the rest of the world. If he fails to establish a postal service and successfully send six thousand letters within a year, he'll be cut off from his inheritance.
The Royal Postal academy is surrounded by a sprawling, lusciously green landscape that reminded me of the forgotten Warner Brothers animated film, Quest for Camelot. By contrast, Smeerensburg is a bleak and cold place, with the dull tones of Mulan's wintery battle setting. Its homes, in the cramped, ramshackle style of Harry Potter's Hogsmead, look seemingly abandoned. But Jesper soon learns that he has walked into a town built on the generational violence of its two feuding families, the Ellingboes and the Krums (led by Joan Cusack sporting a kind of Yzma energy). It's chaos as Jesper tries to avoid the battle scrums. Hiding from the madness in the town's school, he meets his love interest, Alva (Rashida Jones), a teacher with no one to teach because Smeerensburg children don't go to school, as not to risk the children of both families becoming friends. So, Alva is stuck selling fish until she can get enough money to leave the island for good. As Alva, Jones has less to do than the rest of the cast, but provides a voice of guidance for Jesper.
Jesper makes his home in an abandoned and boarded-up post office that's now being used as a chicken coop. It's funny watching Jesper attempt to navigate an environment so far from the life of leisure, decadence, and silk sheets that he's used to. Schwartzman, most notably recognized by the HBO series Bored to Death and his collaborations with Wes Anderson, brings his signature charm to the character, reminding the audience of why he steals the show in everything he's in. Jesper spends much of the movie struggling to get the town interested in sending letters. But when he seems to have hit rock bottom, he discovers a woodsman's cabin on the other side of the island. This cabin is the home of many toys and their maker, an imposing giant of a man armed with an ax named Klaus (JK Simmons).
For much of the film, Simmons' voice performance is quite muted. Klaus is a quiet man, not the jolly figure we tend to expect, and the narrative's explanation as to why he's so glum is a mournful one. Klaus gains a newfound purpose, though, when he learns through Jesper the miserable state of one of the Krum children. This is where the gift-giving begins, as Klaus throws a frightened and unwilling Jesper into a chimney with one of his homemade toys, marking the beginning of a legend. What follows is one of many heartwarming scenes in the film: The joy of a child and his first toy. That happiness soon spreads, as the town's children learn that if you write a letter to Mr. Klaus, he'll make you a toy. This becomes a comedic hustle between Jesper and the children, and silly scenarios abound as Jesper delivers toys in the dead of night.
Soon the sound of children laughing, which has been absent in Smereensburg, helps the otherwise dreary town come to life. The legend of Klaus is built on Jesper's crazy ideas, building a friendship between the pair. The spirit of Christmas brings this town together, as jolly old Saint Nick fills the children with wonder and excitement and inspires them to work together, in spite of the adults' earlier wishes. But in the end, once he reaches his six thousand letters, Jesper must decide to either walk away from Smeerensburg or stay and celebrate a tradition he helped create. We won't spoil the end here, but Klaus' warmth, wrapped up in classic 2D and tied together with magic and joy, makes it a perfect family holiday viewing affair that might just become a Christmas classic.