Review: Klaus

Distributor: Netflix

Directors: Sergio Pablos, Carlos Martínez López (co-director)

Writers: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zach Lewis

Composer: Alfonso G. Aguilar

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, J. K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda Margrethe Labba, Sergio Pablos, Norm MacDonald, Joan Cusack

Genre: Christmas, Comedy, Animation, Adventure

Rating: PG

Let’s just say that Christmas came a little early for me this year.

After so many CGI animated affairs this year ranging from middling to disappointing in quality, I was mired for most of the time in a haze, yearning for a return to form for all involved.  Animation as an art form has become rote.  Everyone is just repeating themselves, and very little if any innovation or even anything unconventional was to be found anywhere.  It seems that many of the folks now coming out of art school and getting into the industry have reverted to the heresy of treating animation as a “genre”, rather than an art form capable of telling any kind of story it wishes.  It’s like seeing people with access to a full orchestra using it only to play “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” on repeat.

Great is my joy that Disney veteran Sergio Pablos, whose oeuvre includes such Disney Renaissance titles as Aladdin, Hercules, and Tarzan, has established his own animation studio in Madrid, Spain, with the expressly intent purpose of breathing new life into the largely forgotten medium of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation.  With the studio’s first release of Klaus on Netflix, here’s hoping that Pablos and company manage to do for traditional animation what Laika did for stop-motion.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The citizens of Smeerensburg are involved in a generations-old feud between two families/factions. The people come out ready to fight with weapons at the sound of the war bell. The two families lay traps for each other, spend lots of time trying to come up with ways to terrorize the other side. The two families chase Klaus and Jesper, who nearly plunge to their deaths. The town square has a noose and a battle bell.

Language/Crude Humor: None

Sexual Content: Jesper and Alva flirt and eventually kiss and become a couple. Two members from feuding families fall in love and marry. The bride carries the groom and calls him “mine.”

Drug/Alcohol Use: None

Spiritual Content: None

Other Negative Themes: Trust is broken at times

Positive Content: Primarily intended to educate rather than entertain, but kids may learn about the Scandinavian indigenous group – the Saami people.

Promotes moving past old grudges, not being afraid of new friendships, not judging others because of what their parents/grandparents did or felt. Also celebrates joy of children who want to have friends and to play, acknowledges sadness of adults who want children but don’t have them. Themes include communication, compassion, teamwork.

Jesper starts off as a “spoiled brat” but ends up a kind, generous man who appreciates the kids of Smeerensburg and his friendship with Klaus. Alva is a clever, persevering woman who rededicates herself to teaching. Klaus is a selfless man/toymaker who wants to bring joy to the children of Smeerensburg. A Saami girl and her indigenous tribe help Klaus and Jesper. Their speech is subtitled, and they dress in traditional Saami clothes.

Review

I recall joining in the general clamor of 2013, in saying that Disney’s frosty box office juggernaut Frozen was successful in answering the clarion call for more offerings of a traditional sort.  At the time, we had seemed to have come to a point at which everyone who still said they like Shrek only did so ironically. So following in the footsteps of the film that arguably killed feature-length 2D animation in the US of A was a practical trend that had more than worn out its welcome.  Considering that so many of the other bastions of animated productions at the time had more or less tethered themselves either intentionally (Illumination) or unintentionally (Pixar) to a stake of repetition and mediocrity, the iron was quite hot for the Mouse House to strike hard with a chilly homage to their own Renaissance period of the 1990s.

What else released over the course of this now-ending decade could have felt more at home two decades ago than a visually arresting animated musical fairytale, with conventionally pretty and easily adorned female leads, and talking comical side characters that really shouldn’t be talking at all?  Unfortunately, everything else that can easily dilute the novelty of even a great work came along with the release of Frozen. So many viewers, myself included, found themselves once again crying out in vain, as though what was given to us in 2013, was either not good enough or had been somehow spoiled by its target audience.  I’ll admit it: adult animation fans are a crazy bunch.

I can happily say that for more than one reason, that attitude can be laid to rest, thanks again… not DIRECTLY to Disney, but in a way.  Sergio Pablos was one among many folks to whom my generation owes a great deal of thanks for the entertainment of our formative years.  After so many noteworthy accomplishments over a decades-long career, such a talent would be criminal to waste if left to the dustbin of history.  Mind you, many of the veterans of that Renaissance have done well by themselves in the fields of online and traditional education since then (one of whom I personally studied under), but it’s immensely satisfying to see one of the old guard take up the mantle in breathing newfound energy into the timeless art form of bringing handmade drawings to life.

Klaus, a family Christmas comedy that operates in part as an origin story for Santa Claus, is many things at once.  It’s very much a standard tale of a selfish, scrawny victim of arrested development, maturing into a responsible contributing member of society, by being thrown into the ringer of how the other half lives (Think Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove.  Now that I mention it, the lead character does bear more than a passing resemblance to David Spade’s Kuzco in more ways than one…).  It’s also a mighty and vibrant declaration of what traditional 2D animation can deliver in the 21st Century with the right amount of time, effort, technical direction, and dedication.

So much of what works so well here is what also makes me wonder (almost aloud) why it was so hard to secure funding for what is otherwise a very familiar tale.  Jesper Johansson (Jason Schwartzman) is a postman in training, who’s not taking his “training” too seriously.  Since his father is the Postman General, young Jesper feels he’s clear to be as lax and unaccomplished as he wishes, resting on the laurels of his lineage.  Papa Postman is having none of these shenanigans, so he presents Jesper with a trying ultimatum.

Jesper is sent to the isolated and backwards northern fishing hamlet of Smeerensburg (which I found out through writing this is a real place), to post no fewer than 6,000 letters in a year, or else be cut off from the family fortune.  Much like the aforementioned New Groove, Klaus is fundamentally a redemption tale for a spoiled brat trapped in a grown man’s body.  Schwartzman pulls out all the stops embodying a twenty-something functional neet who, in true Disney-style branding flourishes, lives in a time and place largely unfamiliar to the target audience, but expresses himself in mannerisms and cadences that feel very “here and now” (“here” being the United States and now…still kinda being the 90s, it seems).  Characters give high fives to each other, which I don’t think was a thing in the 19th Century, and much slang is tossed here and there that probably would have been dated during even my days growing up in the last decade of the 20th Century.  The film even opens with the remark that we really don’t write letters very often these days…

Upon entering Smeerensburg, Jesper and we the audience are shown vividly that Jesper’s journey into full-fledged adulthood is going to be a more intense gauntlet than one probably would have guessed at first.  The entire town visually resonates as though we’ve entered the maw of an ancient eldritch beast.  Houses, shops, and other edifices are contorted into concave angles, as if they were giant rows of teeth gnashing at all outsiders who dared to cross their terrain.  Considering that the entire town is embroiled in a “Hatfields and McCoys”-like clan feud between the Ellingboes and the Krums, the perils aren’t only skin deep.  If that isn’t enough of an obstacle for poor Jesper, the entire town is functionally illiterate, so getting any letters to process from these folks is going to prove especially grim.

The belly of this beast has many crevices and threats lining its walls.  The hostility of the denizens trickles down to the rambunctious guttersnipes, who swarm the nooks and crannies of town as efficiently as a pack of rats.  On top of all that, everything is perpetually covered in ice, snow, and fog.  The writers and art directors do an excellent job stacking the deck against Jesper, giving him seemingly no hope of success.  There are however glimmers of civility amidst the wasteland.

One such glimmer comes in the form of Alva (Rashida Jones), a young and mildly attractive woman living in a warehouse lined with the hanging carcasses of fish that make up her wares as a monger.  Curiously, the hovel is also adorned with the trappings of an elementary schoolhouse.  Alva explains that her original role as a teacher lost its market value once the people of Smeerensburg lost their interest in basic education.

Another beacon of hope comes in the form of what at first seems to be a giant, grimly taciturn woodsman of few words voiced by J.K. Simmons who develops something of a symbiotic understanding with the fledgling Jesper.  For much of this movie’s run, it’s remarkably easy to forget that this is meant to be something of a Kipling-esque origin fable for the legend of Santa Claus, and that is a strong mark on the pacing and framing skills of the filmmakers.  The experience is much more enjoyable going into it not really expecting anything Christmas-related and being pleasantly gratified when coming across familiar elements of the legend.

To go further into that legend will also betray the refreshing joy of going into Klaus cold turkey, and for such a wonderfully crafted passion project, anything short of your full and unmitigated patronage would be an injustice, dear reader.  For those of us who’ve been wondering since the turn of the millennium exactly how the traditional form of feature film animation could possibly reclaim a place of unironic consideration in the mainstream consciousness, this is one of the best answers we could receive.

Even the seemingly perfunctory side characters are so lovingly defined, voiced, designed, and acted that this would be just as entertaining and iconic even without the embellishment of the Saint Nick myth.  A gruelingly sarcastic ferryman (Norm Macdonald) delivers witty Greek chorus commentary while invading the space of the drama periodically.  A small gaggle of ghoulishly haunting waifs playact at torturing a snowman by impaling him with carrots.  Then there’s those ladies who seem to constantly be carting off body filled with…well, it’s probably best that we don’t know.

Pablos and company make no apology for being artisans well-trained in and fully committed to their classical roots.  At the same time, they have realized – probably better than anyone else so far – what such a well-worn medium would have to become in order to be accepted or recognizably modern to the audience of now.  The charm and fluency with how the characters move and express themselves is recognizably a product of a bygone era.  The mesmerizing luminescence with which everything is rendered, lit, stylized, and staged is wonderfully and ingeniously immediate.  Unlike the otherwise impressive Green Eggs & Ham production, another Netflix property that was released around the same time, nothing about Klaus feels in any way dated, no matter how familiar and approachable it is.

In fact, while staying true to the tried and true methods of the past, Klaus is more forward thinking than even some of the bigger contenders.  Disney just got a heap of praise for the somewhat last-minute decision to be more attentive to the indigenous nomads of the Scandinavian Peninsula, known as the Saami, in the production and release of Frozen IIKlaus goes a step further in that direction, casting Saami actors playing Saami characters speaking the Saami language in fairly significant roles to the plot proper.

It’s depressingly unusual to see a film that is clearly family-friendly but at the same time not afraid to be dark and fearless.  During my formative years, this was normative.  Before my time, it was even more commonplace.  The workers of professional animation felt no pressure to coddle their audience with saccharine, easily digestible pablum that never challenges them or expects nothing but willingly passive eyes and ears.

If the fundamentals of this film all sound conventionally familiar to you, dear reader, that’s because they largely are.  Aside from not being a musical, Klaus reads as though it might have been revived from a project left on the cutting room floor of Disney that Pablos just happened to pick up on his way out the door.  This troubles me as to why exactly was this deemed too risky for funding and distribution outside of a “throw-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” platform like Netflix?  Hopefully the 30 million+ viewing count that Klaus has scored will ring not only as a clarion call to would-be producers of traditional 2D animation that there is still a strong market for their particular brand of storytelling commodity, but that all producers and distributors who missed an opportunity to capitalize upon it should lose just as much sleep as they do potential profits for that mistake.

Positives

+ Gorgeously rendered and animated
+ Fun and lovable characters
+ Brilliantly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time
+ Quite sophisticated for a family Christmas movie
+ Excellent writing

Negatives

- Feels like there’s more that could have been explored
- Only on Netflix
- Forgets its sense of place and time on occasion

The Bottom Line

Yes. This. I like this thing. More of this thing, please. Frozen II? More like “Frozen Who?”, amirite? Man, I hate myself right now…

 

9.2

Tyrone Barnes

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