This sweet but so-so animated feature from Despicable Me creator Sergio Pablos has snowy festive charm, but is lacking a punch of idiosyncrasy. A Santa Claus origin story mixed with a coming-of-age tale, Klaus is warm-hearted and visually delightful, yet is missing a certain spark to distinguish it from any number of Christmas-themed animations released year on year.
Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is a teenage aristocrat; he is ostensibly training to be a postman at his Dad’s company but spends the majority of his time lounging on silk sheets and eating fine foods. His father, keen to see his lavish idleness replaced with hard-work and achievement, sends Jesper to Smeerensburg – a brutal, snow-drenched icescape to facilitate his transition from slacker to workhorse. He is given the task of delivering 6,000 letters in a year, and if he fails he will be cut off from the seemingly never-ending tap of his family’s wealth.
He arrives in Smeerensburg to find it a place fundamentally opposed to sending mail, as the two tribes of the island – the Knuts and the Elingboes, are engaging in a decades-long grudge war. It all seems hopeless for Jesper, until he chances upon a large, looming figure with protruding belly and an enormous white beard, the titular Klaus (JK Simmons).
From here on, Klaus and Jesper start delivering toys to the island’s children and the film begins the plodding inevitability of its narrative. Pablos has created a wonderful traditional feel to the animated palette of Klaus, aside from the human characters themselves who are distinctly CGI figures, the landscape itself is superbly hand-drawn. There is a particular gorgeous shot of an unsent letter mournfully cast adrift in the snow. But the trajectory of the plot is overly familiar and tired; while the notion of a pre-Christmas Santa Claus is interesting, Klaus fails to assert any sense of individuality with its story. There is also a surprising lack of humour in the film, with Pablos resorting to tired visual gags that only raise the briefest of smiles.
Overall, Klaus is a film made with precision and confidence, but is perhaps lacking a flash of originality to make it a festive classic. There is much to praise: the beautifully drawn landscape; the imperious Klaus who is initially presented in a radical gothic horror styling; the nimble way the film darts from ethereal and lush textures; and Rashida Jones is excellent as ragged school teacher Alva. It’s a fine film, but therein lies the problem – it’s just fine, and nothing more.
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