‘Klaus’ is a Christmas Miracle for 2D Animation
As someone who pines for the days of hand-drawn animation, I’ve watched for updates on Sergio Pablos’ Klaus like a hawk. Pablos, a former Disney animator, has worked on this film for the better part of a decade. The short teaser released in 2015 held so much promise. Unfortunately, the reason for its delayed release was two-fold: Hollywood execs believe that 2-D animation is dead (thanks, Michael Eisner) and that the Christmas season now belongs to tentpole pictures like Star Wars and Frozen 2. Lucky for us that Pablos found a platform for Klaus on Netflix. It’s no secret that most of Netflix’s original films are, well, let’s be nice and say they can do better. But I am thrilled to say it that Klaus is a very notable improvement.
Klaus’ Story is Familiar But Fun
Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the spoiled son of the postmaster general, is shipped to a desolate little town up north called Smeerensberg. He must deliver 6,000 letters by Christmas to get back in his dad’s good graces. Unfortunately, Smeerensberg is beset by two feuding clans that make the McCoys and Hatfields look like a mild argument. Jesper’s last hope is a reclusive woodsman with an unusual talent for toymaking named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Klaus recruits Jesper to help bring his toys to Smeerensberg’s lonely children. Jesper’s soon inundated with letters from kids asking Klaus for more gifts, and their mission causes a ripple effect of kindness throughout the town. Throw in a tough-as-nails schoolteacher (Rashida Jones), and a plot between the heads of the families to keep the fight going, and soon the legend of Santa Claus is born.
Now I know what some of you eager Christmas fanatics are thinking. A story about Santa’s origins involving a mailman, a teacher, and a gloomy town ruled by a grouchy tyrant? Sounds like a ripoff of Rankin-Bass’ Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town — but only on the surface. In practice, the two are like night and day (and it goes without saying that Klaus has better animation). This movie takes Christmas clichés we’ve seen before and gives them a fresh coat of paint. As I watched Klaus, I remembered why the tropes of the jerk who changes his ways and the town that learns goodwill still work after all these years. It reminded me of Pixar’s Coco and Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings; even if you guess the plot dynamics, you remain invested because of these fun, likable characters and this beautiful world.
The Characters Make It
At first, Jesper’s drastic change from the teasers surprised me. He began as timid and insecure, and now he needs a lesson in compassion. I understand and agree with the reasons for the change, however. Pablos wisely determined that having Jesper be a dogged good guy from the start wouldn’t make him the right protagonist to go through an arc that a story like this calls for. Plus, if the many iterations of A Christmas Carol have taught us anything, it’s that we love nothing more than a good holiday redemption tale. Schwartzman’s delivery and the wild animation make him so much fun to watch.
Norm MacDonald’s wry ferryman who gets his kicks from Jesper’s slow adjustment had me smiling when he was onscreen. Joan Cusack’s having fun as the villainous matriarch; it’s reminiscent of her gleeful turn as Addams Family Values‘ black widow, Debbie. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how relatable Rashida Jones makes Alva, the teacher. Her arc is something of a mirror to Jesper’s. She came to help the community, but was forced to convert her school into a fish shop since the parents didn’t want their kids “mingling with the enemy”. Like our protagonist, she too has a goal to reach that’ll let her leave town. Once she’s drawn into Klaus and Jesper’s deliveries, however, she finally has a chance to impart her wisdom and rediscover her selfless side.
Smeerensberg’s band of moppets avoids the trap of being one-note kids. Each one has a distinct personality (the quartet with the Tim Burton stares building grim snowmen never failed to crack me up). Márgu, a little Saami girl, takes the cake as far as cuteness goes. She refuses to let a little thing like a language barrier stop her from being heard. She embodies the positivity that comes from Klaus and Jesper’s altruism. It’s also nice to see her culture have some genuine representation rather than handwaving it to give the film some semblance of diversity.
A Very Real Santa
It goes without saying, however, that the real MVP is the title character. J.K. Simmon’s phenomenal acting and the stunning animation bring Klaus to life. He cuts an intimidating figure at first: Broad and unknowable, able to snap logs in two with his bare hands. But as he trades his ax for a sled, the gruff veneer slowly peels back. It takes a while (and a few mishaps) for his jolly side to come out. When it does, it’s a joy to see.
There’s nothing fantastical about this Santa Claus: there are no flying reindeer or elf helpers (at least in the traditional sense). The one thing that’s purely magical is the winter breeze that serves as a connection to someone long lost during pivotal moments. Think Pocahontas‘ spirit guide wind but on a more personal level. It plays an important part in the mystery surrounding Klaus — who is he? How did he come to make so many toys in the first place? Why does he spend his time alone in a forest full of birdhouses? The answers result in one of the most human depictions of Santa I’ve ever seen.
Some complained that Klaus, despite sharing the film’s name, isn’t the true main character. I argue that Klaus is the major catalyst for the plot and the changes the characters go through. The title bearing his name is relevant to the story and himself. After all, this is a story Jesper is recounting about the man who changed his life.
2D Animation Returns With a Bang
I don’t mean to downplay the progress of CGI or the hard work animators put into it, but I feel like there’s too much out there right now. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing it is to see a brand-new animated feature of this caliber brought to life in a different medium. Every person looks and feels unique. None of them are variations of a single model. Though the character animation is great, the devil’s in the details. The swirls of snowflakes sparkling in the sun, a spider scutting across a tiny cobweb. Each spontaneous moment is tenderly hand-crafted. The result is a more beautiful illusion of life than the most current technology could ever hope to replicate.
Some animation buffs call Klaus the “reverse Paperman“; Whereas Paperman recreates the 2D-style animation with computers, Klaus uses tons of shadow textures and lighting to make the 2D animation resemble CGI. Though it took me some time to get used to this look, they pulled it off. The animation is so smooth and alive that you’d swear it was computer-made. It takes a keen eye to discern how much of the environment is real 3D and which is 2D. I pray that Klaus sparks interest in returning to the medium of hand-drawn animation.
The score is beautifully evocative of past holiday tales (John Williams and 90’s Alan Menken came to mind). Where it falters is when it gives way to pop music. Though the songs are far and few between scenes, to be fair, they still risk dating the movie. Hearing The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now” as Jesper starts collecting kids’ letters in the style of an underground hustler left me scratching my head. I will concede that there was one moment where it made me laugh; the hip-hop “Don’t Mess With The Postman” serves as the perfect punctuation to Jesper cowing a bully into behaving himself to the awe of the kids. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many silly internet videos that do something similar.
Then there’s the main theme, “Invisible“. To my great surprise, it works in the context of the film. It encapsulates the message of one kind act sparking another at one of the movie’s most poignant moments. Hearing it play again over the end credits took me back to the ballads that would follow any 90’s Disney movie.
Thank You, Sergio Pablos and Netflix
Klaus is an early Christmas treat created by people who love animation and all its storytelling possibilities. Sergio Pablos, thank you for proving there’s still a place in this world for hand-drawn animation. Netflix, thanks for taking on a project that might never have seen the light of day without a big name to support it.
With Disney+ making a big splash on the streaming scene, the temptation to put a hold on Netflix for a while is a strong one. Just know that if you do, you’d be ignoring a new, wonderfully crafted hand-drawn film that we need right now. It would be a stretch to call Klaus a perfect movie. Yet I came away from it with that warm, fuzzy feeling you can only get while watching a great Christmas film. Klaus is destined to be a new holiday classic in the years to come. You can bet I’ll be revisiting it plenty of times this holiday season. I highly recommend you do the same.
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