Netflix is known for producing a nearly endless amount of content, including feature films and hordes of animated TV projects, but the streaming service has yet to release a single original animated movie. Not one. That changes this week with the release of Klaus, the directorial debut of Despicable Me creator Sergio Pablos, which hits theaters on November 8th and begins streaming on November 15th. Between its totally unique animation style and folk-inspired take on holly jolly ol' Saint Nick, Klaus is anything but a safe bet for Netflix's first foray into feature-length animation. Both Pablos and Netflix swing for the fences with this one, and what a beautiful swing it turns out to be.
Klaus is a reimagining of the folk tales that started the legend of Santa Claus long ago. It begins with a lazy and self-obsessed postman named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), who is only still in the post academy because his father is in charge of the entire country's postal service. After angering his dad one too many times, Jesper is assigned to Smeerensburg, the northernmost town on the map, and given the task of establishing a post office in the remote location. This task proves to be even more difficult when Jesper arrives and learns that the town is stuck in a centuries-old feud with itself.
How can Jesper push through the necessary quota of letters if no one in Smeerensburg writes to one another? He finds his answer in an old toymaker named Klaus (J.K. Simmons), who lives out on the edge of the woods. Jesper begins a scheme in which he gets the children in the town to send letters to Mr. Klaus and, in exchange, he brings them toys. Of course, Jesper and Klaus begin a friendship and the operation starts to transform not only the town, but also Jesper.
Klaus is much different than the Christmas movies you're used to. It has some similar beats to other stories, most notably How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but it never feels like a retelling of any kind. It's wholly original in its folk-tale approach to Santa Claus. Like many folk tales, and unlike many Christmas movies, Klaus has a warm and mysterious soul at its center. There's an undeniable sense of wonder about the entire thing that makes it feel like a story being passed down at the fireplace by a jolly grandfather with a mischievous look in his eye.
That concept is taken even further with the actual animation from Pablos' SPA Studios. Instead of using computers and modern technology to replace the classic hand-drawn animation style, the team behind Klaus uses the tools at their disposal to simply evolve and enhance it. The characters are oddly-shaped in the most endearing way, the kind of imperfect that could only be designed by an artist's hand. The backdrops feel like a painting hung on a wall in a cozy cabin while the colors are realistic in a way that most animated films actively shy away from. Despite the fact that animation is inherently "not real," everything about Klaus' style is oddly and unimaginably human.
It's difficult not to fall in love with all of the charm that Klaus has to offer. The characters, especially Klaus and the young Margu, consistently prove themselves worthy of your time and attention. It takes a while for Jesper to grow on you, but he fits the spoiled brat-turned-hero stereotype better than most, reminiscent of David Spade's Kuzco from The Emperor's New Groove. The characters have soul, much like the film itself.
As uplifting as it is, Klaus is also designed to break your heart just a little bit. The pain of loss and the fear of change are immensely powerful forces and Pablos doesn't shy away from addressing them, which makes Klaus the most necessary kind of Christmas movie. Life isn't always about holly jolly sleigh rides or reindeer with red noses. It can be, at times, but it's also challenging, and it can really hurt from time to time. That's something we all experience, no matter where we're from or what side of Smeerensburg we live on. Klaus shows us just how much we can do, and how many lives we can change, by just acknowledging that simple fact. What could be more Christmasy than that?
Rating: 4 out of 5
Klaus hits theaters on November 8th and begins streaming on November 15th.