Home Theatre: Klaus - A Santa Claus reboot
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Klaus, streaming on Netflix
The year is coming to a close, which means Christmas is just around the corner. And when Christmas is drawing near, can Christmas movies be far off? Klaus is Netflix's first original animated feature, and with a title like that, at this time of year, no prizes for guessing what it is about. Klaus is the directorial debut of Despicable Me-creator Sergio Pablos, produced by his own animation studio that he set up to develop a traditionally-animated film. In his own words, he wanted to "pick up traditional animation where it was left off" after the advent of computer animation in the 90s. The look and feel of the film is definitely its USP. And Klaus looks beautiful with its hand-drawn frames that pop with life.
As for the story, it's a sort of origin story for Santa Claus. A disinterested postman inadvertently invents the Santa Claus myth when he meets a woodworker named Klaus in an isolated island in the North. Jason Schwartzman voices Jesper, the spoilt son of the owner of the postal service, who is enrolled in the academy against his will by his father. When he proves to be completely inept at being a postman, his father, in a last-ditch effort to reform him, banishes him to the bleak town of Smeerensburg, where he has to establish a working postal office and stamp 6000 letters within a year if he is to keep his inheritance. This Smeerensburg turns out to be a place filled with two violent, hateful clans who have a long-running feud. There is a school, but the children don't go there because parents do not want their offspring to be mixing with those from the other clan. In fact, Alva (Rashida Jones), who came there to be a teacher, has had to turn the school into a fish market to make a living. In such a place, no one has the need or ability to write letters, and all seems hopeless for Jesper. Until he finds Klaus (JK Simmons), an imposing white-bearded woodworker with a shed full of toys. Klaus gets Jesper to deliver a toy to one sad little boy, and soon this boy's friends start writing letters to Klaus asking for toys also. Conniving Jesper goads them on and gets other children to do the same, and convinces Klaus to give away the toys he has. In the process the Santa Claus myth gets created — the climbing down a chimney, leaving gifts in socks hung from the mantelpiece, leaving out cookies, even the flying sleigh pulled by magical reindeer — while these may not be particularly clever, they are quite amusing.
The voice cast deserves most of the credit for getting the admittedly simple humour to work. Schwartzman's performance straddles the line between obnoxious and endearing, and we find ourselves rooting for Jesper even as he does selfish things, and hoping he will soon turn the leaf (which, we know, he inevitably will). Simmons is a surprise in the role of Klaus. He doesn't get to speak a whole lot but is effective when he does (only once when he yells "Get out!" do we see even a trace of the JK Simmons of Whiplash). And the friendship that develops between Jesper and Klaus is quite charming and believable.
A nice surprise is the sympathetic portrayal of the Sami people (indigenous people from Scandinavia) and the use of their language in the film, avoiding the temptation to make them speak English with an accent. Also lovely to see the actor (from a Sami background, presumably) who has voiced the little Sami girl getting credited with the principal cast. The exoticising of the Sami people is a bit unsettling — they become the elves of Klaus' workshop. But, baby steps, I guess.
The film's central thesis is, "A true act of goodwill always sparks another." Though Jesper's intentions are not 'true' in the beginning, those of Klaus, Alva and the Sami people are, and this transforms the town into a happy place. A place where former enemies become friends and everyone is kind to one another. It's the sort of thing that only really happens in the movies. Still, for the space of an hour and a half, Klaus transports us to a place where we almost believe it is possible and puts a smile on our face. And that's worth something.