There’s magic in a letter. An alchemy of processes; forests to cards, pigments to ink, pen to paper. Finally jettisoned off to far corners of the country, the world, collecting the fingerprints of postal caretakers before reaching your doorstep. It’s an analogue art form, a method of communication fighting a losing battle against the virtual upholstery of instantaneous pixels, word processing, and email. Yet we keep it alive via birthday cards, thank you notes, invitations and, of course, the precious wish lists of children worldwide.
Much like communication, animation is a medium obsessed with modernity. As software becomes faster, so does the process of rendering 3D character models to poke, prod, and puppeteer. Sweeping landscapes become copy-and-pasted backgrounds and pre-production for annual Disney animated features seem more concerned with physics engines and automation than character design and experimentation.
Disney has just released its highly-anticipated Frozen II, a painterly and expressive exercise in world building, sure, but whose genuinely startling moments of pure animated innovation are few and far between. Its most stirring sequences are those that recall the abstract of Fantasia or those build upon the fantasy of the first film, but must Disney remain steadfastly bound to nostalgia to make the products the success they are?
Spanish animator and first-time feature director Sergio Pablos (along with co-director, Carlos Martínez López) thankfully birthed Netflix’s animated Christmas film Klaus in a reinvigorating 2D style. It’s a quaint, storybook film for bedtime that understands that an animated origin of the first letters written to Santa Claus could only be faithfully chronicled by the picturesque, analogue qualities of traditional animation.
Set within a mythical continent that fans of Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, and Dr. Seuss will eat up, Klaus follows the not-so-intrepid Jesper, a trust fund kid who’s sent by his father, the head of the postal service, to the remote town of Smeerensburg so he can prove his worth. Once there, he discovers that the frozen town is fraught with a raging conflict that goes back for generations. Much like the Montagues and Capulets, the Krums and Ellingboes aren’t quite sure who started the disagreement. But, with the help of a mysterious woodsman and a cynical teacher-cum-fishmonger, Jesper tries to unite the town just in time for Christmas.
Seasoned animator Sergio Pablos has his origins in traditional animation, having contributed his fair share to the 1990s Disney Renaissance through his work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. More recently, he’s perhaps better known as the unsung creator of the money-printing factory, Illumination’s Despicable Me and Minions franchises. However, with Pablos’ directorial debut, his return to the second dimension marks the arrival of a potential savior for animation. By making Klaus the streaming platform’s first original animated feature, Netflix are making a statement—2D is here to stay.
The premise of Klaus is remarkably basic with the potential to become maudlin and overly precious had it been rendered with the bouncy, automated animated styles we’re more used to today. There are certainly some questionable needle drops of contemporary tunes, inexplicably fighting against the hand-crafted, archaic aesthetic constructed in the first act. These operate purely as mass appeal in the wake of animated studios’ current modus operandi, and we can only be thankful that Pablos and co. opt for the likes of “How Do You Like Me Now” rather than the latest annoyance from the Top 40.
Accompanied by Jason Schwartzman’s bratty drawl as Jesper, there are a few hurdles to get over before you can totally succumb to the warm, fire-lit embrace of Klaus. Rashida Jones is brilliantly cynical as a disheartened schoolteacher, familiar to anyone who has ever tried to make a career out of the unforgiving profession, and Joan Cusack is having heaps of fun as Mrs Krum, the most fanatical devotee to the town’s violent traditions. Thankfully, sardonic Schwartzman is also offset by a scabrous, complicated performance by J.K. Simmons as a mournful Santa Claus. His is a refreshing take on the character, as Christmas films of late have seemed eager to modernize Saint Nick (Arthur Christmas, Noelle), or portray him as a fleetingly untouchable, impossibly magical figure (The Polar Express).
Animated Santas especially haven’t had the strongest track record. A Nightmare Before Christmas’s Sandy Claws remains mostly mute and spends the majority of the film being impersonated by a skeleton; trying to recall what exactly Alec Baldwin was attempting with his Russian Santa for Rise of the Guardians just leads to headaches. In fact, the only 2-dimensional Santa that comes to mind for the most recent comparison is Futurama’s decidedly kid unfriendly RoboSanta—a malfunctioning, foulmouthed psychopath.
Simmons is perfectly cast, therefore, as the ideal introduction to the character of children’s legend. Initially acquainted to Jesper as a mysterious woodsman, a former toy maker with a withering exterior, the titular Klaus soon becomes the soul of the film. Klaus is front and back-loaded with fun yet distracting action set pieces along with rote slapstick, but Simmons’ gentle growl narrates a somber and humanizing origin for the character during the second act’s moments of downtime that makes Netflix’s first animated original an essential viewing for the holidays.
This Santa Claus is very much human, with all the emotional baggage and regret that comes from years of living a human life. But, much like Edmund Gwenn and Richard Attenborough both understood in their performances as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street and its 1994 remake, it’s not the flying reindeer or light-speed present delivery that makes Father Christmas magic. Like the best versions of the North Pole’s most famous resident, Simmons’ Klaus is won over by the innocent creativity and boundless potential of children. A parental figure conjured by generations of families to do the things that real parents can’t, Santa Claus is rendered here in soft and inviting traditional animation to secure his place as the world’s most magical grandfather.
Santa Claus is a character quite literally gift-wrapped for animators to mold, adapt and take advantage of. However, as studios like Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks have thrown us into the next generation of animation for the 21st Century, we’ve yet to see a definitive take on the character for the computer generated era. Perhaps Klaus should serve as a reminder that Saint Nick simply doesn’t belong in algorithms, programs, or engines. Much like a child cannot send his Christmas list in an email, a faithful Santa Claus adaption needs handmade craft and care to win the hearts of young audiences. Paired with one of J.K. Simmons’ most genuine vocal performances, we finally have an animated Santa trustworthy enough to sneak down our chimneys and steal our cookies in the middle of the night.
Klaus is available to stream on Netflix