With a little help from his friends, director Sergio Pablos has added a triumphant new addition to the beloved holiday canon in Klaus, now streaming on Netflix. Co-directed by Carlos Martínez López with a screenplay by Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney (with some uncredited assistance from Rashida Jones, a voice actor in the film), Klaus reexamines the mythology of Santa Claus in a most roundabout way: what if Christmas had been started by a total sleaze?
Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is a fast-talking son of a successful postman whose business now reaches all across the world. Well, except for one place. In Smeerensburg, far to the chilly Arctic north, the residents all hate each other, which of course means they have no reason to send any letters. Tired of his son’s antics and privileged entitlement, Jesper’s father banishes him to Smeerensburg as the town’s new postman, and if he can’t find a way to revitalize the postal business there, he’ll be cut off from his former life of luxury for good.
In comes the scheme. Jesper realizes that the children of Smeerensburg might be willing to send letters to a mysterious woodsman on the outskirts of town in the hopes that he will send them a toy. Why this woodsman (voiced by J.K. Simmons) has an entire barn full of toys is a mystery the film joyfully reveals in one of the many wonderfully creative scenes in Klaus stitched together by some truly gorgeous and innovative hand-drawn animation, ultimately making this the best animated film of 2019, as well as one of the best animated Christmas films of all time.
This is a version of Santa Claus with more than a few flaws, especially to be found in Jesper, a surprising choice of protagonist, but a brilliant idea all the same. Rather than risk the lionization or degradation of Santa’s recognizable persona, Klaus roots its own Christmas spirit in more relatable characters, including Alva (voiced by Rashida Jones), a local schoolteacher who has to spend all her time selling fish instead of teaching because no one in Smeerensburg wants to send their kids to school. Her gradual discovery of what can unite the children and adults in this deeply miserable town is what makes their eventual transformation all the more believable and effective.
As this is a film intended for the whole family, Klaus has no shortage of humor to accompany its lively heart. And in addition to Schwartzman’s manic dialogue, Joan Cusack and Will Sasso provide the voices of Smeerensburg’s local leaders, who bicker and feud with each other throughout the film in repeatedly hilarious fashion. Norm Macdonald also gets a recurring bit to play as Mogens, the boatman who relentlessly trolls Jesper as he tries to understand the ins and outs of Smeerensburg’s dark and quirky populace, which is packed with characters you could easily see show up in The Addams Family or The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Klaus has a unique sense of location to bring its heartwarming story to life, and that’s made all the more enchanting by its jaw-dropping animation, which recalls a traditional hand-drawn aesthetic with all the advances of modern technology we’d expect to see in 2019. This really does feel like the kind of animated film a studio like Disney or DreamWorks would have made this year if they hadn’t pivoted so drastically to computer animation in the last two decades. The lighting, textures, and vibrant color palette are all a massive step up from previous hand-drawn animated films at this scale (at least aimed at Western audiences), and the result is a film as gorgeous as it is poignant in its storytelling.
If Klaus comes up short in any significant regard, it’s altogether minor in the grand scheme. Jesper might come off as a little grating to some audiences who prefer more likable characters, especially if they’ve had a hard time with the Kuzco character from Emperor’s New Groove. It does take quite a while for Klaus himself to enter the story, and there are a handful of moments when the attempts to explain Santa mythology are more heavy-handed and obvious than probably intended. But these are all minor nitpicks most family members won’t care one lick about by the time the final frame whisks them out of a world they probably won’t want to leave anytime soon. I can’t think of a better recipe for a film becoming an all-time holiday classic.