Netflix has gifted us a new Christmas movie classic all wrapped up in the form of Klaus. From an original story by Despicable Me/Minions franchise creator Sergio Pablos, this gorgeously animated tale is actually the first of such efforts backed by the streaming giant. It tells the origin story of the iconic Christmas character Santa Claus in an entertaining, roundabout way while introducing brand new mythology befitting the North Pole setting. So while I don’t necessarily expect a series of sequels and spinoffs from Klaus, it’s destined to join the annual holiday watchlist. (It’s streaming on Netflix now if you want to do the same; my semi-spoilery review follows below.)
While Klaus is, at its heart, a story about the non-religious origins of the gift-giving traditions of Christmas and the bigger-than-life character of Santa Claus, it’s wrapped up in an altogether different tale. It starts out about as far from any holiday-related themes as you can get. We follow not Klaus (J.K. Simmons) but Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a character who’s pretty tough to relate to and even tougher to like. That’s by design. Jesper has quite a bit in common with other beloved cinematic characters like Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove or the title character from Billy Madison. It’s that classic “spoiled rich kid ,whom you hate at first learns, through hardships to be a decent person that you eventually respect and like” motif. Add in a dash of holiday spice and you can pretty much figure out how Klaus plays out.
But the journey is a delightful one even if you know where it’s headed. That’s thanks in part to Pablos’ curveballs he throws into the narrative and in part due to the holiday connections that pop up over the course of the story. The twists and turns that arise are similar to another holiday classic: The Nightmare before Christmas. Surprised? Me too! While not as overtly macabre or spooky as that Halloween/Christmas tale, there are moments of outright creepiness in Klaus. The titular rich kid, who’s barely making an attempt at graduating from his father’s company’s postal worker academy, is assigned to the remote frozen outpost of Smeerensburg. And it is decidedly not the traditional vision of the cheerful North Pole you’re used to. It’s dark, fog-shrouded, and foreboding, populated by feuding families who stop at nothing to beat each other up and undercut the opposing side at every opportunity. And Jesper’s introduction to this burgh is actually the scariest part of the entire tale.
Luckily, things eventually brighten up once Klaus struggles through his hardships and makes some local friends, both adults and children. The adults here are jaded, close-minded, and cruel, and some of the kids are already following in their footsteps. But it’s the rest of the children who are Jesper’s salvation and that of Smeerensburg. Like all great Christmas classics and morality stories, it’s the innocence and generosity of children in the spirit of Christmas that have the power to transform hearts, minds, and even places as dark and dismal as the remote northern outpost. In the process, Jesper, disgruntled teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), and the despairing hermit/woodsman/toymaker Klaus will be forever changed by the children of Smeerensburg.
While Klaus is light-hearted enough for a family feature, it’s got some heavy moments, mostly centered on Klaus’ mysterious past and his status as a childless widower. This heartbreaking story will likely hit older viewers right in the emotions, even if some of the meaning sails over the heads of the little ones. It adds some gravity to the otherwise fun and sometimes frenzied tale, which is itself buoyed by very clever inventions of Christmas conventions–Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer, delivering wrapped packages via chimney, and the all-knowing Santa’s naughty list resulting in coal instead of presents–made by Jesper.
Klaus also stands apart by its animation style. Pablos’ SPA Studios has delivered an absolutely gorgeous tale that delights in environmental storytelling, from the dark shores and dangerous piers of Smeerensburg, to the desolate frozen wilderness of Klaus’ home in the woods, to the eventually bright and cheerful locale that the Christmas spirit brings. The character design is wonderful; it ranges from the slight and spindly Jesper, to the broad and brooding Klaus, to the absolutely massive and imposing Pumpkin and Olaf. Their use of light and shadow adds levels of depth to the visual storytelling, and the overall movie’s progression from a place of light, to darkness, to light again is masterfully done. There’s the occasional glitch–like a solid door that clips right through a kid, a scene that stuck with me and then we, coincidentally, featured it in a clip you can see right here–but for the most part, the animation is seamless if not flawless.
Netflix has an instant Christmas classic in Klaus and I look forward to watching it during the holidays this year, the next, and for years to come.