Non-religious Christmas films tend to follow the same basic stories depending on what genre they are. Those based on A Christmas Carol are pretty self-explanatory. Then you have the romance: a young workaholic realises that love and happiness should come before their career thanks to the interference from an elderly relative/something magical. Or the family film: a workaholic parent realises that they should be putting their family first so runs out of the big presentation just in time to see their child perform in the Christmas show. Both of these will inevitably end with the whole cast standing near a piano with their arms around each other and singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. Finally, you have the Santa Claus origin story: in which a kindly but childless man is chosen/decides to spread joy to other people by leaving presents under their tree at Christmas. We get it. We’ve seen it. So, I wasn’t sure what Netflix’s new animation Klaus was going to bring to the table besides a dreamy cast of voice actors. Still, I needed a break from all of the A Christmas Prince and Vanessa Hudgens nonsense.
As I said in my review of Frozen 2 on Tuesday, animation has moved on a lot in the past few years. There is a real sense of realism to animated films now that is just breathtaking. The human characters look and move like real people. So, it’s kind of a refreshing change that Klaus has decided to take a more nostalgic approach. The characters in Netflix’s Christmas animation have more of an angular look to them. Instead of the realistic but cold computer-generated people we’re so used to in modern-day animation, Klaus has a warm hand-drawn feel to it. Yes, it does take advantage of digital aspects but this is a film that is all about taking us back to a different age of illustrated movies.
The whole film is very unassuming and kind of pared-back. The backdrop to most of the film is a desolate arctic town. It’s all very grey and white. Smeerensburg is a foggy and isolated island. You definitely wouldn’t find a Disney princess romping around the crumbling cabins. But this is where Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a young postman, is exiled by his father, the Postmaster General. Jesper is a lazy and entitled young man who is used to being given everything he ever wants. His father sends him to the middle of nowhere to instil some humility in him. With the promise that he can leave after dealing with 6,000 letters, Jesper finds a unique way of getting there. It involves him teaming up with the mysterious woodsman who lives alone in the middle of the forest.
Klaus (JK Simmons) is a lonely man with an excess of toys. A simple act to bring joy to a child’s life starts a new tradition for the town. Suddenly children everywhere are behaving themselves, going to school, and helping others. Smeerensburg’s only teacher, Alva, has been making a living selling fish to earn enough money to leave. With Jesper’s arrival, she suddenly finds her purpose and a reason to stay on the island. The town’s longstanding tension between two warring families is forgotten because of the promise of presents. But there are some in the town who don’t take quite the changes quite so well. Klaus and Jesper find themselves having to fend off a select group of people attempting to stop them. Will they still be able to deliver treats to everyone?
This is a fairly standard origin story for Father Christmas so it won’t really surprise anyone too much. However, the idea to focus on Jesper brings a new dimension to the familiar tale. Instead of a benevolent old man who takes it upon himself to start acting this way, Santa Claus is born out of a selfish young man’s desire to get home. It’s an interesting dynamic that sees two opposing viewpoints fighting for dominance. Namely, the idea that everyone is just out for themselves vs one simple act of human kindness promotes further acts. I also liked the idea that the film removed any hint of mysticism from the story. Everything about the Santa Claus myth is explained and works well.
The only problem is, there is a lot of stuff going on here. I liked the history of Smeerensburg’s but I wished we could have seen more. The film’s first act is its strongest. The new and weird landscape is a wonderful thing to explore. I just wish we could have discovered more. I think a prequel film is in order where we see more of life on the island before Jesper turned up. Getting a look at how his predecessors coped. But this has to make way for the inevitable origin story. The middle act, where Klaus becomes the figure we know and love, is a bit more by-the-book. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable but it isn’t doing anything amazingly different. There are some cute moments but it doesn’t quite have the same energy. Still, the final act comes back strong and we end on a suitably emotional and heartwarming ending.
Klaus is by far and away the best Christmas film that the platform has ever created and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, it’s a bit sickly sweet at times but that’s par for the course innit. As for Netflix’s standing as an animation powerhouse, Klaus proves that there is potential there. The platform’s previous film outings have been dicey, to say the least, but this is a definite highlight. One for all of the family.