First appeared in our bonus Christmas magazine which can read online here

 

What is the best Christmas film of all time? The purists will obstinately stake It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street holds the title. Alternatively, those born during an inferior era may state A Christmas Story or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation lead the way. Slightly later releases such as Home Alone or its sequel Lost in New York are always top contenders, and some philistines still like to claim Die Hard comprises an actual Christmas movie. Modern classics like Elf and Love Actually are both easy viewing but lack the gravitas necessary to be an all-time great.

The majority of these are simply movies set during Christmas, with merry cheer incorporated to gain influence over a susceptible audience. These competitors all invariably share a tenuous and optimistic link with Christmas spirit, whereas the 2019 Netflix animated film Klaus defines it. The advent of Santa Claus; the best origin story since Iron Man and possibly the greatest Christmas film of all time. A far-cry from the vast tide of bland Netflix originals unimaginatively titled ‘Christmas (enter word)’. A fresh and topical festive marvel, complete with all the unmistakeable traits that make holiday movies so comforting.

The story follows Jesper Johansson (Jason Schwartzman), the indolent son of a Postmaster General, set in a fictional 19th century world. Our lead character mirrors Emperor Kuzco, a self-absorbed brat content with doing nothing and expecting everything in return; the antithesis of Christmas spirit. Despite nepotistic attempts, Jesper’s inertia prompts drastic action from his Father. He is forced to establish a Post Office on the isolated, Northern island of Smeerensburg. Deliver 6000 letters in 1 year or be cut off from his inheritance.

Smeerensburg is monochromatic and bleak, devoid of cheer and enjoyment. Jesper must contest with warring factions, anti-social citizens and a large bearded recluse named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) in a quest to convince the populace to send letters. What ensues is a hallmark progression for any great animated film, with the quintessential rise, fall and subsequent resurrection of our lead character. As his self-interests manifest, the town inadvertently begins to transform into something approaching inhabitable, with merriment slowly dialled up to the expected holiday level.

Set as an alternative narrative to the well-known story of St. Nicholas, Klaus depicts the story of how Santa Claus came to be. It serves to deconstruct all the most famous Christmas traditions while preserving its spirit. From flying reindeer and a sack full of presents, to naughty children receiving coal, the Christmas lore is explored through a novel and immersive tale filled with unrelenting charm. The Rogue One of Christmas movies; something nobody knew they needed but most love now it’s here. The retrospective approach to such a popular story may not appeal to sceptics, but with a well-balanced humorous screenplay to counteract the traditional exploits, even the ceaselessly referential narrative does not become tiresome.

Sergio Pablos finally brings his passion project into existence, and his illustrious career as an animator can be observed in every frame. From Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to Hades (Hercules), Pablos is responsible for the creation of several timeless entities. Arguably his most acclaimed design is that of Dr. Doppler in the vastly under-watched Treasure Planet; a character with a likeness to our protagonist Jesper. Pablos’ genius permeates through the aesthetic, with an unconventional style of animation that harkens back to the Disney classics of the late 90s. An aesthetic which will stand the test of time far greater than its generic CGI contemporaries, and justifies its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.

Background is seamlessly blended with intricate characters and object movement through state-of-the-art 2D effects, combined with texturing and a framing layout which generates depth. The town of Smeerensburg is a triumph in modern animation, forming the main vehicle for the narrative. It takes inspiration from Halloweentown and Lapland to form a beautiful, twisted visual landscape; think San Francisco meets Siberia. Housed in this Winter nightmare are the feuding townsfolk, reluctantly making peace as they begin to identify their similarities instead of fixating over their differences.

Klaus is admittedly a year old and given that timelessness is key in defining a Christmas classic, there is an element of conjecture associated with its popularity. There is little doubt however that Klaus will endeavour and persevere against even the most cold-hearted Scrooges. A heart-wrenching storyline filled with beautiful animation and a generic but poignant message: ‘A true selfless act always sparks another’. The grinches of Klaus come in the form of the clan leaders, as they join forces to preserve their generational feud. Suitably voiced by Joan Cusack and Will Sasso, their characters reinforce the notion that tearing down old traditions in favour of modern ones can be difficult, but is often cathartic and beneficial.

If Klaus did have a flaw, it lies in its soundtrack. In an attempt to seduce audiences, drawling pop songs are interspersed throughout the intriguing story. Alfonso Gonzalez Aguilar’s original score is magical and could easily have carried the film throughout its entirety. Instead, the misplaced modern entries are distracting, and although adequate as standalone songs, are inappropriately utilised. It undermines the audience and perhaps highlights Netflix’s insecurities in releasing their first animated feature. The interludes disturb the atmosphere; disturbances which might be amplified when families watch Klaus in the coming decades.

For every weakness however, Klaus has multiple strengths, typified by its universal accessibility. The story is light-hearted, warm and not overly long; tailoring itself to a younger audience. That being said, the narrative is complex enough to be enjoyed by older viewers, especially those 80s and 90s children who subconsciously succumb the covert Disney sentimentality woven throughout the animation. The emotionally charged chronicle will also leave some people in pieces, especially as we delve deeper into Klaus’ past and motivations. Jesper’s blossoming romance with the disillusioned local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) is perfectly predictable, but her character arc is so seamlessly integrated into the main narrative, nobody will blink an eye. She represents the entire town, yearning for more, yet not realising the opportunities right before them.

Ultimately, Klaus is likely to be as close to true events as any cult or religious story. The good deeds of one man or woman which change the lives of many, embellished to alter the course of history. The story of Santa Claus is enchanting, and Klaus takes the established narrative and beautifully distorts it, blending the perfect amount of Yuletide tradition with classic animated nostalgia. Klaus echoes previous juggernauts whilst making its own statement, reverse-engineering a tale as old as time to provide an impactful, modern miracle which loses none of the customary Christmas magic.

By Dave Manson

Hi I'm Dave, one of the Features Editors for FilmHounds magazine. My day job is as a Doctor, and I work in South Wales. Watching films has always been a massive hobby, and through the great team at Filmhounds, I now get to put that interest into action. Letterboxd: Davemanson1

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