Welcome to the jingle.
Santa Claus himself gets an origin story in this rather delightful, occasionally awkward, animated offering from Spanish filmmaker Sergio Pablos, who had a hand in unleashing the now-ubiquitous Minions on an unsuspecting world thanks to his work creating the Despicable Me franchise.
We shouldn’t be too hard on him; unshackled from their memification, the Minions are rather charming, and their burbling nonsense-speak, physical humor, and broad parodies are following a long tradition of European comic strips where the ability to tell stories in a way that transcends language barriers is an asset. Steered by Pablos and co-director Carlos Martínez López, Klaus has some of the same spirit; while its 2D animation may hearken back to golden age Disney to some degree (although I get more than a whiff of fellow Disney apostate Don Bluth), the character designs and occasionally gleefully mean sense of humor are very continental.
The story is somewhat unwieldy though, with a lot of place-setting needed to get us to where we apparently need to be to explain how Santa came to be in a way that shucks off any specifically religious connections but puts a bow on all the familiar trappings of the folkloric St. Nick (who the title character most definitely is not).
Our hero is Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), a lazy, self-important student postman — because hell, why not? — who is skiving his way though, uh, postal school in some vaguely 19th century, vaguely European milieu. Meanwhile, his father, a very important postman (it feels sillier the more I write), is having none of this and dispatches his son and heir off to the far, far northern hamlet of Smeerensburg to set up a functioning postal system there. If he drops the ball, he’s out on his ear.
Grim and icebound, Smeerensberg is wracked by a generational feud between the Ellingboes, whose patriarch is voiced by Will Sasso, The Three Stooges (2012), and the Krums (Joan Cusack is on cranky old lady duties as the leader of this clan), and the general tone of the town is less than hospitable. These folks would rather hurl axes at each other than send letters, and so Jesper seems doomed until he chances upon the eponymous Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a hulking reclusive woodsman with a house full of homemade wooden toys and a tragic past. Jesper convinces the local kids that if they send letters to Klaus, he’ll send them toys — and the intimidating but kind-hearted hermit is happy enough to play along.
If you think that’s a lot of plot mechanics for a Santa: Year One gig, you’re not wrong. Narratively, Klaus is clunky as hell, but it’s fun to watch all the elements of the Santa Claus myth line up and drop into place, even if they do so a little too conveniently. Jesper adds the ‘naughty or nice’ morality clause to keep mean kids in line, while the Christmas date gets decided upon to manage supply problems. The toys are delivered by a carriage, which eventually turns into a sleigh, of course, and, during one madcap sleigh-ride through the night, one moppet happens to look out of his window when the cart is airborne. The elves? Indigenous Sámi people who chip in to help (Sámi analogs also crop up in Disney’s Frozen II, so it seems like they’re having a bit of a moment, but if you can’t stand the schmaltz maybe take a punt on SBS’s Sami Blood (2016) instead).
And so on, and so on, and so on.
Still, while the plot convolutions are haphazard and occasionally forced, the animation itself is absolutely gorgeous: painterly and rich in a way that melds the cartoonish artistry of pen and ink animation with the subtle textures that CGI is capable of. The lighting alone is jaw-dropping — this is a movie that is wonderful to simply look at, let alone actually watch.
The voice cast are fully engaged and bring their best to their various roles. It’s a mistake to have Jesper constantly yammering away to fill any hint of dead air, but Schwartzman is a charming enough presence to make it work. J.J. Simmons’ basso tones work wonderfully for the gentle giant of the title, investing the character with a kind of wounded warmth. We get a love interest in the form of would-be teacher-turned-fishmonger Alva, voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones, who provides both a sparky foil for Jesper and a way for Smeerensburg’s rabble of ragamuffins to learn their ABCs; and Norm Macdonald (c’mon, he’s Norm Macdonald) crops up as a laconic, sarcastic ferry captain who kind of kibitzes on the narrative action from the sidelines.
The whole thing is big-hearted and beautiful, to the point that it feels somewhat churlish to point out some of the story shortcomings (still, that is the job at hand). Rest assured that Klaus hits a lot more than it misses, and when it does miss it’s not by much. As a film it’s like a warm mug of hot chocolate, with just enough spice to keep it interesting.
Christmas movies are hard to gauge; the best ones are legacy heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation, like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and A Christmas Story (1983), and of the more recent crop I can’t figure out for the life of me why Elf (2003) is a modern seasonal fave while Arthur Christmas (2011) isn’t. Whether Klaus, which is currently on Netflix, winds up in the yearly rotation going forward is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly worth a spin this year, and for now that’s what counts.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson