It’s ironic that Netflix’s first original animated feature is a throwback to the glory days of Disney’s hand-drawn masterpieces, but the streaming giant has a knack for making the kinds of movies that other studios have deemed obsolete. And if nothing else, Sergio Pablos’ “Klaus” is a convincing argument that we shouldn’t let the old ways die (which is not a terribly difficult case to make considering that even the best CGI animation still has all the soul of an algorithm).
Of course, Pablos might be trying to atone for his own sins, as the Spanish filmmaker — who spent the ’90s working on more classical projects like “A Goofy Movie” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — eventually left the Mouse House to create the “Despicable Me” franchise, an eyesore so influential that it’s grown into a sty on the cinema itself.
But “Klaus” is so beautiful that even the grinchiest critics of digital animation will feel moved to forgive Pablos for his (incredibly lucrative) missteps. A labor of love that’s poised to show a new generation of young kids just how magical the movies can be, this lush Christmas tale unfolds with the timeless warmth and detail of a hardcover storybook; smoothed out character designs and volumetric lighting coat the image with a modern gloss, but not in a way that should carbon date it to the current moment. It’s a shame, then, that the film isn’t half as nice to watch as it is to look at.
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“Klaus” is a ridiculously convoluted Santa Claus origin story that reverse-engineers the Christmas spirit in such a bizarre way that it’s hard to care about any of its characters (or even understand what some of them are doing). It shows you what happens when you put the sleigh before the reindeer. This strange tale begins in a fictional Scandanavian country, where a spoiled brat named Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is enjoying his privileged existence as the son of the man who runs the Royal Mail Academy. But Jesper’s life of luxury comes to a sudden end when daddy announces that it’s time for his large adult son to work for a living, and banishes the boy to the miserable island of Smeerensburg near the Arctic Circle. If Jesper can deliver 6,000 letters that year, he’ll be allowed to return home; if not, he’ll be cut off forever.
It feels like a rather generous offer. From the start, Jesper is considerably more annoying than Pablos and his fellow writers Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney seem to realize. The character is cut from the same pampered cloth as Kuzco from “The Emperor’s New Groove,” but he’s very hard to stomach without the serrated wit that made everything about that movie feel sharp to the touch. “Klaus,” by contrast, doesn’t boast so much as a single memorable barb — this despite that Jesper almost never stops talking (Schwartzman gives the kid plenty of room to grow, but you’ll be sick of him long before he sweetens up). The humor is strained and the laughs sporadic, though Norm Macdonald brings a welcome edge as the salty boatman who ferries Jesper to his new home, and some of the comic violence that we encounter in Smeerensburg should be enough to elicit a few giggles from the younger crowd.
In a film so driven by its visuals, it’s fitting how the funniest thing here might be the character designs. Jesper is a silly twig of a man; his spindly legs, exaggerated hands, and bulbous red nose make him look like the love child of a ballet dancer and a homunculus. The townspeople of Smeerensburg — an oafish lot of pitchfork-wielding hicks who’ve been at war with each other for so long that it’s become a tradition unto itself — are inbred, jowly, and often giant kind of Greek chorus. They’re barely fleshed out enough to serve their narrative purpose (leaving Joan Cusack and Will Sasso to shoulder way too much of the story as the leaders of the local clans), but they cast an amusing shadow.
And then there’s Klaus (an endearingly wounded J.K. Simmons), the sullen woodcutter who lives on the edge of town. The sequence of events that leads Jesper to his door is as sweaty as the plotting gets in this kind of stuff, but the big idea finally comes into focus when a “Beauty and the Beast”-like encounter between the two characters leads Jesper to hatch his master plan: He’ll convince the children of Smeerensburg to write letters(!) to Klaus that explain how good they’ve been, and in return the carver will send the children some of the old toys that are collecting dust in his workshop. From there, the story is basically “Shakespeare in Love” for Santa Claus, as every wrinkle in Jesper’s scheme (e.g. Klaus will transport the toys in his sleigh, mean kids won’t get any, etc.) becomes a formative part of the Christmas myth.
But Klaus isn’t the jolly Kris Kringle you might expect — he’s closer to Grendel. Not only does his epic gray beard mask a dark and gritty take on the character (just what kids have always wanted to see: Santa as an embittered widower), but his strapping physique also makes him look like a member of the Justice League. There’s really no other way to say it: This Santa is thicc as hell. The guy looks like his grieving process has involved a lot of steroids, and by the time we meet him it’s clear that his pecs are absolutely swole with unspent selflessness. Jesper and Klaus are natural foils for one another, and the best scenes between them have a sense of purpose that’s missing from the rest of the film. But the depth of Klaus’ heartache is a bit jarring when it’s explained at the end, although that has less to do with the details themselves than it does how clumsily arranged this story feels from the second it gets to Smeerensburg.
Despite the nourishing consistency of the film’s design — the musty atmosphere of the school house where Jesper’s throwaway love interest (Rashida Jones) works, the collage-like backgrounds that look jagged and full of life, the depth of expression in the eyes of every Smeerensburg child — the rest of “Klaus” is all over the map. Ill-fitting pop songs (one emulating “Frozen,” the other “The Grinch”) undermine the timeless aesthetic at key moments, while Jesper’s character arc feels so far removed from the Santa Claus of it all that the whole movie grinds to a halt whenever Pablos and co. try to knot them together.
Other than its pitiable namesake and an adorable young Sámi girl whose inability to speak English helps the film tap into something more elemental about the value of goodwill, none of the characters in “Klaus” are as delightful as they are well-drawn, and Pablos’ film never earns the holiday spirit it tries to manufacture down the home stretch. But there’s no denying that the future of “traditional” animation looks a little brighter than it did yesterday, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.
“Klaus” is now streaming on Netflix.