If you haven’t already, you’ll no doubt be bombarded (either willingly or not) over the next month by more holiday movies than may seem possible. Some will disappoint (Last Christmas), and others may only just suffice (Noelle)… and then there’s Klaus, the slightly off-kilter Netflix offering that may just find its way onto your annual Christmas must-watch list.
Writer-director Sergio Pablos, who once-upon-a-time created the Despicable Me franchise, produced Klaus as the first film under his own SPA Studios banner. As non-traditional as kids’ animated holiday films can come, it gives an alternate take on the Santa origin story… a tale that includes a banished spoiled brat, a schoolteacher-turned-fishmonger, and a Hatfields-and-McCoys feud that ends up spawning a holiday.
Jason Schwartzman voices the aforementioned brat Jesper, who is training at the Royal Postal Academy at the behest of his wealthy Postmaster father. Jesper, though, is content to sabotage his training, so he can just be expelled and then go home to his butler and silk sheets. Dad, though, has other ideas and sends Jesper off to a remote post office in the Scandinavian pit of Smeerensburg with an ultimatum: post 6,000 letters in a year, or be cut off from the family. Alas, Smeerensburg has been dominated by a feud between the Krums and Ellingboes for centuries, and the only thing they hate worse than each other is whoever shows up as the postman du jour.
Eager for business, Jesper makes a few house calls, only to have every door slammed in his face. His last hope is a remote woodsman’s cottage, where he finds the ominous recluse Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a widowed toymaker. Eventually (it’s a long story, but it works), Jesper gets the idea to pair up one of Klaus’ old leftover toys with each kid in the town who writes a letter.
Before you know it, Jesper has created a little cottage industry, which, as it unfolds, explains virtually every Christmas tradition we know, including Santa’s arrival via fireplace, the hanging of stockings, the plate of cookies, and even the lump of coal for miscreants. All is not perfect in Smeerensburg, though—a band of townsfolk is out to sabotage these new traditions, led by the snarly Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe (Joan Cusack and Will Sasso), who are none to pleased at the thought of the ages-old feud evaporating.
The screenplay, a collaboration between Pablos (from his original story), Jim Mahoney, and Zach Lewis, is a unconventional blend of misanthropy and holiday cheer. If it’s like anything (which it’s not), it might be How the Grinch Stole Christmas, mixed with the geometric-heavy animation of, say, Kubo and the Two Strings.
Indeed, there’s so much about Klaus that feels wholly unique, and that’s a big reason for its success. During the time of year that overwhelms with tired holiday tropes, the arrival of a refreshing, inventive story told though some good old fashioned hand-drawn animation (accented by a smidge of CGI) is a more-than-welcome addition to the party.