A true act of good will always sparks another.
For a figure as ubiquitous as Santa Claus, the myriad ways in which his origin can be reborn, refashioned, and retrofitted seem infinite. Those seeking a new direction generally take the old and filter it through a contemporary generational lens wherein the jolly man’s title is passed down the line either by magic (The Santa Clause) or birthright (Arthur Christmas). Those choosing to start from scratch instead have therefore become a fascinating subsection of the Christmas genre simply by ensuring nothing is out of bounds. You can imagine a world where holidays exist as universes (The Nightmare Before Christmas) or superheroes (Rise of the Guardians). And you can transform legend into history for a grounded narrative about second chances that earns its evolutionary leap to peace on Earth.
The latter is the direction that writer/director Sergio Pablos takes for his comedic variation on the subject entitled Klaus. Alongside co-writers Jim Mahoney and Zach Lewis, the film doesn’t even concern itself with the idea of Santa until almost halfway through the runtime. It focuses on a product of affluence instead: a spoiled brat of a man named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) skating by without a charitable bone in his body. He’s so entitled that he’s wasted countless people’s time and energy by refusing to take a job gifted to him by his rich father within the family business of mail seriously. Jesper self-sabotages this experiment in responsibility with the thought that he’ll inevitably go back home and bask in the lap of luxury after failing. He thought wrong.
With one last-ditch effort to knock some sense into the boy, Mr. Johansson ships his son off to the far-away island town of Smeerensburg with an ultimatum. Either Jesper turns this wasteland community into a viable postal region (something multiple postmasters couldn’t accomplish before they desperately escaped their plight) or his financial security will be cut off en route to what will surely be destitution. Because he wouldn’t have any problem paying for the six thousand letters his dad set as a quota himself as long as the townsfolk signed their names at the bottom, Pablos and company make it so these citizens scowl in the face of good will and altruism. They’re all too busy fanning the flames of a centuries-old feud between families Krum and Ellingboe.
It’s a fluke when the first letter is unofficially sent by one of the area’s hilariously homicidal children raised by violent parents. While Mrs. Krum (Joan Cusack) and Mr. Ellingboe (Will Sasso) do their best to sow generational animosity amongst their respective hordes, Jesper takes that little boy’s self-portrait out of fear. Fate has him bring it to the outskirts of town way up in the mountains to see if an old reclusive toymaker (J.K. Simmons‘ Klaus) has mail to send. And a wind influenced by spirits places that picture into the latter’s hands. It touches Klaus to the point of wanting to wrap one of the toys collecting dust on his shelf for the child as a gift in the hopes of making him smile.
Word travels fast as kids on both sides of this lineage war yearn for presents. Realizing their excitement plays right into his hands, Jesper pounces. He can use these children and their gracious pen pal as a means to reaching his quota of stamped envelopes. He can stake his freedom on their enthusiasm and do everything in his power to make certain their demand is satisfied. What he doesn’t anticipate, however, is the potency of the goodness that arises from his greedy opportunism. The kinder and happier the kids get, the kinder and happier the parents become in response. Jesper’s scheme somehow sparks a change in Smeerensburg that nobody could have imagined. And his front row seat to the metamorphosis might just spark a change in him too.
The journey is therefore a cutely endearing one as Jesper becomes entrenched in the community as a man to befriend and respect as a conduit to the growing mystic surrounding Klaus. It’s pretty funny how the kids themselves manufacture the folktales of magic and impossibility because of the wild nights Jesper must endure delivering gifts. He becomes an army of elves all himself as he combats lit fireplaces, angry watchdogs, and a town chock full of weapons due to the seemingly never-ending feud. The children dream up ways in which a man as big as Klaus can get it all done while Jesper stews in the lack of credit for his part. He accepts it at first since the letters keep coming. Soon he will embrace it too.
Smeerensburg returns the favor as Klaus thaws to let the jolly personality he locked away years ago out and Alva’s (Rashida Jones) schoolteacher turned fishmonger turned schoolteacher again remembers why it was she arrived in the first place. We meet locals from a town over (courtesy of Neda Margrethe Labba‘s adorable Márgu), watch as the Santa Claus we know comes out of a group of people’s hard work, and wait for the other shoe to drop as Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe toil to bring back the unrest Jesper’s actions have risked erasing forever. Schwartzman’s usual shtick carries through his vocal performance thanks to his rapport with Klaus and boatman Mogens (Norm MacDonald) keeping things light as the drama (Sasso and Cusack are delightfully daft) and poignancy increases.
Beyond the approachable storytelling, fun cast, and revisionist mythology, however, lies the stunning craftsmanship of the animation itself. Pablos’ goal was to wind things back to the hand-drawn two-dimensional style he helped advance at Disney in the 1990s and early 2000s. He does that and more as the lighting and shading of his frames almost looks as realistic as the computer work ushered in by Pixar that’s become the norm. Eyes are glassy and shadows diffused with deckled edges to lend a softness and fluidity that traditional cell animation lacked. So put his Spain-based The SPA Studios on your radar as the potential to become a boutique alternative to Disney, Dreamworks, and Sony is there. This may be his directorial debut, but he’s far from an industry novice.
courtesy of Netflix