Klaus (2019) Review

A CHRISTMAS ANIMATED MIRACLE


 

Santa, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, and so on and so forth. There are many names to the fictional character of Santa Claus, but all speak to the same iconic figure around the holiday season character (mainly from the Western Christian culture) who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on the night of Christmas Eve (December 2th); waking up to find gifts left behind on the morning of Christmas Day (December 25th). Usually and generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man (sometimes having spectacles), and wearing a red coat with white fur cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belts, and carrying a bag full of gifts for children. Naturally, this imagery of Santa Claus is also accompanied by his magical sleigh that is pulled by several flying reindeer. All of these images of Santa have been maintained and reinforced through the various media facets, including songs, radio specials, television productions, cartoons, children’s books, movies, and advertising. Now, Netflix and director Sergio Pablos presents the animated feature that looks to explore the true origin of Santa Claus with the movie titled Klaus. Does this cartoon film find its “holiday spirt” or is just sad lump of coal?

THE STORY


Born into a life of wealth and privilege of postal business, Jesper Johansson (Jason Schwartzman) distinguishes himself as the postal academy’s worst student, but is quite happy in that role and certainly cares not for the important role and duty a postman represents. When his father (who owns the postal academy) threatens to take away his luxurious lifestyle, Jesper is sent to be stationed on a distant frozen island above the Arctic Circle to the even smaller and remote town of Smeerensburg, where the two feuding families of the Ellingboe, who is led by Mrs. Ellingboe (Joan Cusack), and the Krum, who is led by Mr. Krum (Will Sasso) have made the town hostile and harsh. Jesper, who immediately finds the harsh conditions unsatisfactory (no one in town writes / sends letters), is about to give up when he finds an ally in local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), and discovers Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a mysterious carpenter who lives alone in a cabin full of handmade toys. Together, these unlikely friendships as well as Jesper’s understand what needs to be done, returns laughter and happiness to Smeerenburg; forging a new legacy of generous neighbors, magical lore, and stockings hung by the chimney with care.

 

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Like many kids growing up, I believed in Santa Claus. I know, I know….it sounds a bit of cliché (something that’s kind of a “rite of passage” for kids of the Christian faith) as the legendary fictional character has become more iconic with the tidings of Christmas more so than the religious birth of Jesus Christ (of whom the holiday is centered around). Still, looking beyond that point, the character of Santa Claus has certainly indeed become a major staple of the Christmas season; finding the many “holly jolly” iteration of good ol’ Saint Nick and his gift giving sleigh ride on Christmas Eve night to be a visual imagery that has been deeply imbedded in many childhood memories (and it still continues to be one for me in my mind). Of course, the depiction of Santa has always been the same, but there has been a wide variety of TV episodes, movies, cartoons, and stories that showcase Father Christmas, including Rise of the Guardians, Elf, The Polar Express, Miracle on 34th Street, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and many, many others. So, much like the other fictional childhood-like characters of youth (i.e. the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc.), the imagery of Santa Claus will continue to live on and be a popular (and iconic) symbol for the Christmas holiday season for generations to come.

This, of course, brings me back to talking this current review for the movie Klaus, the 2019 animated motion picture that seeks to shed some light on the origins of Santa. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie until I saw the film’s movie trailer on one of the movie websites that I frequently visit. Judging from the trailer alone, the movie looked to be pretty good and definitely got my attention / interest in seeing, especially the style of animation and the voice talents involved in the project. Of course, the film being released on Netflix, I was a bit skeptical about Klaus as well, especially since Netflix, while delivering some true quality gems / gold nuggets in their plethora of releases, certainly has a “hit or miss” on some of its releases. So, I was a little leery about the movie, but I decided to check out Klaus a few weeks after Netflix released. And what did I think of it? Well…actually….I really liked it. Despite a few nitpicks, Klaus provides to a fun, cute, and wholesome animated endeavor that really does shine in its exception of the story of Christmas and Santa Claus. It may not beat out a Disney or Pixar type of feature film, but it’s quite a charming surprise to watch.

Klaus is directed by Sergio Pablos, who makes his directorial debut with this animated project. With his background on several animated feature projects, including Despicable Me, Treasure Planet, and Rio (in several different capacities), Pablos definitely seems like a “right fit” for a project like Klaus; approaching the movie with a touch of knowledge of the inner workings of animated feature. Because of this, the film excels within its cartoon liveliness and in its actual presentation, with Pablos finding a natural ebb and flow within the movie’s narrative piecing and sequences. It definitely all works and produces a animated feature that comes to life on its own merits rather than trying to find similarities to the more prominent animation studios recent hits. This also means that Pablos also steers clear of generic pop-culture references, which sometimes can be a little bit obnoxious and overstay its welcome. Thankfully, Klaus isn’t like that (except for seeing all the classic Santa Claus tropes and nuances) and pretty much stays within its own time period, so no out-of-place modern-day social media shtick or big musical dance number at the end. In truth, Pablos also does a good job in balancing the feature various moments, which range from comedic levity to heartfelt warmth. All in all, it’s a story about Jesper becoming a better person, Klaus finding purpose in his life after past tragedy, and the people of Smeerensburg find happiness and good-will to each other, with Pablos understanding this and keeps these three beats at the forefront of the feature’s presentation. In the end, Pablos does an exceptionally job in directing his first feature film and handles it all in a better way than some other first-time director are able to achieve.

As mentioned, at the core of the movie, Klaus delves into the actual origin story of Santa Claus and, while some animated tales have done this before, this particular iteration carries a very strong message within its narrative. Thus, the film’s script, which was penned by Pablos (pulling a “double duty” on Klaus) as well as Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney, also speaks to this commentary message of expressing good-will nature to all and how generosity and kindness can go a long way. This is exceptionally noticeable in the movie, with the town of Smeerensburg being a vile and mean-spirited place from both its kids and adult inhabitants. So, actually seeing the transformation of the remote town going from cold-hearted to friendly is a delightful treat to visually see, especially since we (the viewers) follow Jesper and Klaus’s journey to make that happen. The movie also delves into some dramatic moments within Klaus’s backstory, which is pretty deep, and definitely is something that could be discussed / examined with kids in real-life that dealt with pain after tragedy. In the end, Klaus’s themes / messages are quite palpable, meaningful, and can definitely speak to everyone. In age of mean-spirited and toxic environment on social media outlets and out there in the real-world, it’s comforting notion to see a feature (be it animated or live-action) showcase the important values of being kind and spreading good-will to all. Like Klaus says in the movie “A true selfless act always sparks another” and I personally (and wholeheartedly) believe that.

On a technical presentation level, Klaus is quite a visually stunning animated feature. One of the definitive true highlights of the feature is actually in its animation, which is has a very distinct and extremely beautiful. Of course, what makes it stand out is in 2D animation; foregoing the more traditional 3D animation of late, which makes the Klaus feel truly “magical”. In a recent age of animated film endeavors where 3D CGI animation has become commonplace and is definite the main product of these projects, its really nice to see a cartoon feature go back to 2D (in a almost long lost art form of storytelling) to visually tell its narrative piece. Of course, I’m not discrediting 3D CG movies, but unless it’s a powerhouse animated studio (i.e. Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment), smaller studios production sometimes come off as “cheap knock offs” that look weak (i.e. Arctic Dogs, Leap!, Duck Duck Goose, etc.). Klaus’s 2D animation brings to itself a lot of character into various background settings and characters and, while they look a bit simple in design work and layout, it actually gives the feature a certain flavor and own personal characteristic throughout. Sometimes (like a lot of things), simpler is actually better than detailed and it definitely showcases it beautifully in Klaus. The movie’s animation almost looks like 3D animation in some parts, but that’s mostly due to the shadowing / texturing that the studio put into it the movie, but it’s all done with a solid presentation. Even the character designs for each of the various characters in the movie are rendered beautifully. Sure, they aren’t exactly proportionally built like some recent animated features (i.e. Frozen II), but the each one has its own memorable look and not one character looks the same (even supporting / background ones). Also, because of the film’s 2D animation, I do have to all the members of artist staff (and art direction team) for their work on Klaus…big kudos to all of you!

Additionally, the film’s score, which was composed by Alfonso G. Aguilar, was terrific; invoking a melodic Christmas-sounding musical composition that felt a little bit reminiscent of holiday movies of old from other composers (i.e. John Williams, Alan Menken, Alan Silvestri, etc.) and really does add an extra layer of quality to the feature’s proceedings. Plus, there are a few pop-like songs that are sprinkled throughout the movie that, while not quite necessary, are still fun to listen to and are well-represented in the scene that they are playing over.

With the movie being an actual genuine surprise for me, there wasn’t much that I didn’t like about Klaus as I enjoyed it from start to finish. That being said, there were a few minor things that I have to point out. Perhaps the one that’s my most immediate point of criticism is that the movie’s story (as a whole) is a little unbalanced. What do I mean? Well, the first half of the feature is well-balanced and introduces us (the viewers) to the narrative being told; exploring the land, characters, and initial premise set-up to Klaus. The second half, however, is a bit more rushed. There’s plenty to like about this particular portion of the movie as everything builds to its climatic point and overall resolution, but everything happens really quickly. To be honest, with the film having a 96-minute runtime, Klaus could’ve actually benefited by adding another ten minutes to its runtime; allowing more time to certain characters, concepts, and story building moments. I’m not saying what’s given in the feature’s final cut isn’t great (as it is), but everything (from the story to the characters) is a bit accelerated during the second half and a little bit more of a runtime would’ve been good.

Another problem is the overall predictably in Klaus’s narrative. While it’s definitely wholesome, fun, and meaningful, there’s still a sense of a formulaic touch to the story being told. It’s quite easy to see what will happen to Jesper (and his overall character evolution) in the movie as well as the town of Smeerensburg. Of course, it is the journey and what transpired within the movie’s story that makes it worthwhile, but the film’s script is rather simplistic and predictable, leaving little in the way coloring outside the lines of a commonly used narrative storyline centerpiece, especially in animated movies. Again, these points are very minor as I kind of expected them to be like this and in no way shape or form did it distract me from enjoying Klaus. It just could’ve help them feature a bit more.

Along with the film’s dazzling animation, Klaus also boasted an impressive voice cast, which really do shine in their respective roles. It doesn’t matter if they were main characters or just simply supporting roles, each voice on this project is effectively great in their character vocal performances. Naturally, the film’s two main leads (Jesper and Klaus) headline the film, with actors Jason Schwartzman and J.K. Simmons bringing memorable voices to their characters. The character of Jesper Johansson is perhaps the true main character of the two of Klaus’s story, with the movie ultimately beginning and ending with him; following him along his journey to Smeerensburg and how he befriends the lone woodsman named Klaus. Of course, the character of persona and journey arc he follows is quite predictable as it’s almost a classic main character trope for animated movies, but Schwartzman, known for his roles in Rushmore, Mozart in the Jungle, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, definitely helps elevate Jesper with his nasal / whiny sounding voice, which is bolstered by his snappy dialogue of comedic one-liners. Likewise, the character of Klaus is classic architype of the big “strong / silent” character mold that doesn’t speak much, but harbors something deep rooted emotion inside (with a heart of good-natured). He’s the more secondary lead character in the film (even though he is the film’s namesake title), but he’s brought to life beautifully by Simmons, known for his roles in Whiplash, Patriots Day, and Spider-Man, who’s distinct and resounding voice projects that right amount of masculine loner that is needed for the character, which definitely works. Together, both Schwartzman and Simmons have great vocal chemistry with each other and is truly delight to see their respective characters of Jesper and Klaus interact with one another.

The rest of the supporting cast, including actress Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation and Social Network) as Alva, a cynical schoolteacher turned fishmonger / Jesper’s love interest, actor Norm McDonald (Billy Madison and Saturday Night Live) as Mogens, a sarcastic ferryman who lives in Smeerensburg, and actress Joan Cusack (School of Rock and Toy Story 2) and actor Will Sasso (MADtv and The Three Stooges) as Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe, the two matriarch / patriarch of the two feuding families in Smeerensburg, give solid performances within their respective characters. These characters definitely make-up the wildly / colorful roster of players that the movie populates with and, while some might have big bigger roles than others, each one of the acting talents is spot-on in bring these characters to life with their vocals.

FINAL THOUGHTS


The origin story behind the legend of Santa Claus and the celebration mythos behind Christmas gets explored in the movie Klaus. Director Sergio Pablo’s directorial debut film delves into the imaginary world that showcases how the Christmas tidings began and presents in a lighthearted animated feature that’s easy to digest and understand its meaning as well as its entertainment value. While there may be some minor nitpicks with the story (and a few side characters that could’ve been expanded upon), the rest of the film has plenty to like about, especially from Pablo’s direction, its animation, voice cast, and heartwarming story. Personally, I really liked this movie. The story was cute, the animation was incredible, the characters were endearing, and the voice talents were superb. It was definitely a genuine surprise for me and it really shows that something quite “magically entertaining” from a non-big animation powerhouse studio. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a wholesome “highly recommended” as it delivers some holiday cheer and some good fun in a cartoon movie, which could develop into the film become a modern Christmas classic. I sincerely hope that this movie prompts more animated studios to come forward and present feature film endeavor like this (instead of cheap knock-off 3D animations ones). In the end, Klaus is a pure magical holiday sprit as its best and true Christmas 2D miracle for animations endeavors.

4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: November 15th, 2019
Reviewed On: December 23rd, 2019

Klaus  is 97 minutes long and is rated PG for rude humor and mild action

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