Sent into exile upon deliberately underperforming at the postman training academy, lazy and self-centred Jesper Johansen (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) reaches the remote island town of Smeerensburg. He has one year to mail six-thousand letters. Or else Jesper's father, the Royal Postmaster General, will cut him off from the family's fortune. Unfortunately Jesper quickly discovers the townspeople, led by two violent clans - the Ellingboes and the Krums - spend all their time fighting a pointless feud and have no interest in writing any letters. The situation is so bad embittered schoolteacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has given up on teaching any children. Having settled for working as a fishmonger she hordes her savings, dreaming of the day she will finally leave town. Things look just as dire for Jesper. Until he runs into a reclusive, fearsome-looking woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) who has a house filled handmade toys. When Klaus responds to a sad drawing from one of the Krum children with the gift of a toy, Jesper hits on an idea. As word of the mysterious Klaus' gift-giving spreads among local children it grows into a legend that may not only aid Jesper's mission and change Smeerunsburg for the better, but spread across the world...
At a time when 3D computer graphics were all but the dominant face of the medium Klaus, a Spanish-American-British co-production, was hailed as a triumphant revival of traditional 2D animation. Indeed the stated intention of director-co-writer Sergio Pablos, a Disney alum who set up his own studio in Madrid, was to explore how the medium would have evolved had western animation studios not switched almost exclusively to computer animated films in the wake of Toy Story (1995). The results of Pablos' theorizing seen here are a beguiling, at times even dazzling hybrid of 2D and 3D comparable with Disney's Oscar-winning short Paperman (2012) and the revolutionary Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Graced with stunning set-pieces, vivid, expressive character animation and breakneck but solidly crafted storytelling, Klaus is something of a Nineties throwback. There are hints not only of Renaissance era Disney but the zany Looney Tunes style (circa Space Jam) gags and even moments of Tim Burton-esque whimsical grotesquery. It is a story set up with a seemingly cynical exterior that gradually thaws to reveal sweetness that, rather than greetings card saccharine, proves disarmingly humane.
Essentially Klaus offers an alternative take on the Santa Claus story, mixing old world folklore with modern sass and storytelling. While part of a peculiar recent trend towards re-imagining Santa as a hulking badass, the film does so with more finesse and depth than say Rise of the Guardians (2012). In a manner charmingly reminiscent of old John Ford westerns Klaus repeatedly spotlights storytelling and play, in other words: communication as a means to heal rifts, build relationships and strengthen communities. Or as Klaus puts it adroitly: "A true act of good will always sparks another." In celebrating the joy inherent in the act of giving and upholding a generous spirit, the film exemplifies the true meaning of Christmas. Arguably more so than many in recent memory.
If Jesper's callous indifference to the people around him make him a tough protagonist to warm to throughout the first act, this seeming 'flaw' is quickly eclipsed throughout a skillfully rendered arc. His gradual journey from palpable selfishness towards learning the value of hard work and craftsmanship as an expression of empathy and love proves genuinely heart-rending. Moreover the script, co-authored by Pablos with Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney, does a splendid job detailing Jesper's many interwoven relationships with depth and heart, be it his fractious romance with Alva, moving bond with an adorable little Sámi girl (Neda Margrethe Labba, stealing scenes speaking authentic Sámi dialogue) or affecting friendship with Klaus (who nurses his own secret pain). Similarly the satirical barbs slung at an older generation and their use of tradition to uphold pointless prejudice and conflict as a means of maintaining control is equally well observed.
Among the film's few missteps the hip and pop tune led soundtrack sounds out of place in the old world setting (except for Zara Larsson's theme song: 'Impossible', which is lovely). Also you could argue the characters overreact to Jesper's perceived ‘betrayal’ in the third act which has Klaus go into a sulk at a most inopportune moment. For the most part however Klaus skillfully sidesteps the usual contrived beats associated with family-centric storytelling and trades the obvious sugary ending for something far more lyrical and moving.