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Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition

Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.

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Steven Scaife

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Klaus
Photo: Netflix

From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.

The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.

No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.

The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.

Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.

There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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