Some minor spoilers for Klaus
I recently lamented how Kurt Russell couldn’t save The Christmas Chronicles from being a dumb, shallow and cringy Netflix holiday feature. So the search began for a film that was better in every conceivable way. Thankfully for me, I didn’t have to look far as I stumbled upon Klaus. I remember when this movie was first announced, but never took the time to watch it and didn’t really hear much about it. Upon watching it, I’m annoyed that I didn’t watch it sooner. This movie is excellent.
Klaus is a sort-of reimagining of the origins of Santa Clause. Most strikingly though, it’s traditionally, hand-drawn animated feature instead of the industry norm of using CGI animation and goodness, it was a joy to see. CG looks great, but I do wish we had more hand-drawn works to differentiate art styles. Klaus, in that regard, felt like a breath of fresh air as it felt familiar seeing old art techniques, but also pushed the medium forward by using new techniques that made the animation feel more modern, fluid and naturally integrated into the environments. It’s as if CG animation looked hand-drawn. It’s great, as is the exaggerated body sizes of the characters and the fictional 18th century set design and costume design really pop. Think Frozen‘s Arendelle meets…Dishonoured.
The set design is where things are pretty interesting. The movie stars Jason Schwartzman as Jesper Johansson, a spoiled rich-kid “working” at the post academy. I say “working”, because he spends most of his time not trying or lounging around in a tent with his butler. His father finally decides to pull the plug and ships Jesper off to the northern island of Smeerensburg, a dreary whaling community that has no post office. Jesper has to have 6000 letters stamped, or else his inheritance and posh lifestyle are withdrawn. When Jesper gets to Smeerensburg, the movie takes an unexpected, weird turn for a Christmas flick. You may even wonder if this is a Christmas flick. The movie becomes almost black and white, and the citizens of the town are something of a cross between goth-era Tim Burton and the Addams Family. Not only that, but there’s a blood feud between the two clans that live in the town that’s so old, the clan leaders justification for keeping it going is that it’s just been going on for that long and they’re honour bound to please their ancestors. Jesper, let’s just say, isn’t happy to be here.
It isn’t long though until Jesper, desperately seeking letters, ventures to an isolated shack to the north of the island and comes across a grizzled old woodsman (J.K. Simmons) with a bunch of toys. Fleeing in terror, Jesper drops the only letter in his possession (which is kind of conned out of a kid) which is guided to the woodsman thanks to the wind. Thus begins the tradition of Klaus bringing presents to the children.
From there, the movie balances humour, character growth and feel-good Christmas warmth quite effectively. We see how happy children clamour to do selfless acts and how that impacts the turbulent and often violent town. Likewise, Jesper begins to see the value in what he’s doing and he begins collecting letters, not for the sake of his return to riches and comforts back home, but because it feels good to spread some kindness. He befriends Alva (Rashida Jones), a schoolteacher turned fishmonger who is a few months away from having enough coin saved up to leave the town. Slowly, the film adds a colour pallet to the town as the joy is reintroduced and the violent nature of the clans is replaced by working together, bonding and caring. Well, for most of the town. The clan leaders, their children and a few other children are not too happy by this newfound joy as they feel it goes against what their ancestors fought for. So they begin to scheme to try and undo the joy that was brought to the town.
The movie hinges its narrative on the concept of “a true selfless act always sparks another”. One may say that it’s cheesy or unrealistic, but to say that it’s not endearing or a positive message to take away would be foolish. It was just refreshing to see a movie that was about positivity and joy while also not treating its audience like it’s dumb. There are some pretty sad and emotional moments in this film that are handled very well. It’s both touching but also sad. But because of the narrative choices that the film set up throughout its runtime, it’s not depressing. It feels natural and organic and the movie trusts that its audience will be able to tag along for the ride without it needing to dumb things down or overexplain things.
If there was a blemish in this otherwise fine movie, it would be the nefarious clan leaders. Their scheme thankfully isn’t too over the top and cartoony, but they themselves are. Joan Cusack voices Mrs. Tammy Crum, an old crone of a woman who leads one of the two clans, and while she never overdoes it, I found her voice didn’t match the design of the character. The scenes with the leaders feel very abrupt too and sometimes last only 10-20 seconds, which messed with the flow of the movie. But since the scenes are so short and the overall scheme is very much in the background of the plot, it never gets in the way or derails the movie.
In the end, this is a wonderfully animated and feel-good Christmas movie, and that’s something I don’t think we’ve gotten in eons. If you want something with a bit more depth, warmth, charm and joy, check out Klaus on Netflix.