Review by C.J. Bunce
For years it seemed like new Christmas classics were few and far between. It usually takes some time for a movie to gain “classic” status, and that itself is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Early on audiences stamped the label on Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and White Christmas. You have your A Charlie Brown Christmas, your How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and a bevy of Rankin & Bass stop-motion animated shows like Frosty the Snowman. Then more modern fare came along, like A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Elf. Oh, and we can’t forget Die Hard. All stamped with an anvil as “classics.” If you want to see more movies from cinema history, check out the Turner Movie Classics book Christmas in the Movies, reviewed last year here at borg.
Putting aside the modern made for TV movies, if you’re younger, you may count as a classic something like The Polar Express, with Tom Hanks. It’s that kind of recent film category where you can add in Netflix’s new movie–its first animated feature, Klaus. Both of these movies are animated in interesting ways that will keep you entertained simply from a visual perspective, Klaus from its unique lighting and color choices and a strong Spanish comic art style (as seen in Dog Mendonça and PizzaBoy). They also share a certain traditional storybook look, and their tales also look back to nostalgia for their ideas. Klaus is another origin story take on Santa Claus. Audiences have seen this many times, including in the not to be missed films Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (featuring the voices of Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Keenan Wynn) and in books like L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and more recently, the brilliant Santa: My Life and Times, with artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz (we reviewed it here).
Spain’s Sergio Pablos directed Klaus intentionally stepping away from modern Disney-style CGI animation to traditional hand-drawn art, so it looks more like Disney’s top technical achievement, the Oscar-winning Beauty and the Beast from 1991, and less like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The story is cute, and contrasting with the traditional visual style, is the inclusion of humorous dialogue told by voice talents famously known for being snarky. We follow a postman named Jesper, who couldn’t look or sound more like David Spade, actually voiced by Jason Schwartzman. Jesper is a non-achiever, and his father sends him to a distant Scandinavian town to learn to be successful at his job. The town ends up like a lawless town out of the Old West. His job is to get people to use the mail service again. Along the way he runs into a Hatfield-McCoy conflict, with one part voiced by Joan Cusack, and an old man with a house full of toys named Klaus, voiced by J.K. Simmons.
But the best character, and best character arc in Klaus, goes to a former teacher who finally gave up when the townsfolk stopped sending their kids to school. She’s voiced by Rashida Jones. And Jesper befriends a fellow who helps as much as punks poor Jesper, voiced by Norm MacDonald. It’s billed as a Santa origin story, and it does pepper in most of the required bits of what makes Santa Santa, but it’s even more focused on Jesper and the other people around him.
You’ll find plenty of callbacks to the more traditional Santa tales and prior adaptations and interpretations, including an adorable little girl who doesn’t speak the town language, evoking a memorable scene from Miracle on 34th Street. It has some commonality in tone with films like Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin. And your kids will encounter themes like perseverance, redemption, and using your smarts to trick others into doing things your way. And the value of writing, specifically letter writing (not email), and the value of the postal service.
Parents of younger kids may want to pre-watch the film, as a certain main character dies, which may or may not be something you want to explain to a crying little kid afterward.
Overall it’s a nice film that could easily go on to become a holiday classic for the next generation. Klaus is streaming now on Netflix.