You know Dasher and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner, and Blitzen. But do you recall the unusual start of it all? The mythos of Santa Claus is given a fresh spin in Klaus, an inventive origin story that provides spirited answers for curious kiddos. Why does Santa come down the chimney? How did we learn he likes cookie? What was the start of bad kids getting coal? And how do reindeers fly? This new Netflix offering will show you every step that led an eccentric toymaker to being the legendary Santa. But the source for this story is one no one would predict.
Directed by Sergio Pablos, Klaus centers not on its titular character, but instead on a stuck-up jerk who only cares for himself. Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) comes from wealth and privilege. His father runs the Royal Postal Academy, which trains dedicated young men to deliver crucial correspondences through merciless terrains. But Jesper has no ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps, and has spent the last semester slacking off and riling his brick wall of a drill instructor. He’d hoped his lazy rebellion would force his father to return him to a life of caviar, sherry, and pampering. But instead, he’s shipped off to the remote and icy island of Smeerensburg. There, he must establish a post office that carried 6,0000 letters a year, or else he will be cut off from his family’s fortune.
Out of the splendor of the big city, through picturesque plains, around rocky roads, and across snow-plastered stretches, Jesper grouses about his woeful misfortune. But when he actually sets his sights on Smeerensburg, it’s worse that he could have imagined. It’s a hostile little town, divided by petty grudges and roaring feuds. Shipwrecks hand haphazardly along the shore. Battle axes and knives are stuck into the sides of buildings. And the whole place is coated in a haze of grey and glowering. The children play vicious pranks. The grown-ups start raucous brawls. The school sits vacant, save for the dead fish the teacher’s forced to sell to make ends meet. And the post office is a hovel, with holes in the roof and chickens roosting amid the sorting shelves. But a strange encounter with a burly woodsman, who has spent decades building charming toys, changes everything.
I’ve focused on the setup of Klaus, because I don’t want to give away the wonderful surprises of the script, written by Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney with a story by Sergio Pablos. Suffice to say, the film sets up a unique world for its yuletide tale. It’s a place of kooky characters, who fling fish, sling one-liners, and shoulder a dizzying charisma whether cynical or joyous. And it’s brought to life by animation that is extraordinarily beautiful, even when exhibiting the decay of Smeerensburg.
Pablos has a background in animation, having worked as an animator on movies like Disney hand-drawn animated features like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, as well as Treasure Planet, which combined these traditional techniques with emerging computer animation. The then went on to work on CG cartoons, executive producing Despicable Me and Smallfoot. With Klaus Pablos engineers a look all his own, a hand-drawn animation that has the CGI-like three-dimensionality thanks to a unique use of lighting. Unlike most hand-drawn cartoons, Klaus has no hard black lines that create a two-dimensional feel. Instead, his characters seem painted by light and color. Yet the move with the character and theatricality of hand-drawn animation. The result is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, making every frame of animation feel like a bit of magic. A gust of wind that pushes dangling birdhouses to click together. A wind-up toy frog leaping about as a giddy child chases after. A smile cracking the stony face of a lonely woodsman. Every bit of it is radiant with wonder, whimsy, and emotion.
Then to all this, Pablos brings in a cast that is beyond sensational. Their voices are all familiar. For grown-ups they will scratch at it our brains, itching us to place them. And each time we do, it feels like a little treat. As the put-upon postman Jesper, Jason Schwartzman crackles with neurotic and earnest energy he perfected with Rushmore and Bored To Death. Bringing a warm machismo to Klaus is J.K. Simmons, whose deep voice grumbles sweetly to give way to the big boom of a satisfying HO HO HO. Filling out the supporting cast are Rashida Jones as a jaded teacher, Norm Macdonald as a mischievous ferry driver, and Will Sasso and Joan Cusack as warring village elders. Each of them bringing a comedic turn that’s deft and delightful.
In short, Klaus is a gift. Its packaging is awe-inspiring animation, that feels like a storybook sprung to life from candlelight. The bow on top a cast that’s dazzling, bringing a flourish to colorful characters who are equal parts funny and enchanting. Then, at its core lies a wonderful story of the power of kindness and how it can spread. Altogether, it’s a movie that’s sure to become a holiday favorite in many homes. It’s warm, sweet, and fantastically funny. As I write this, I’ve already watched it twice in 24 hours because its joys are so addictive. I’m so tempted to tell you more! But I’d hate to spoil the surprise.
The good news is, you don’t have until Christmas.
Klaus premieres on Netflix on November 15.
Header Image Source: Netflix