Have you ever wondered how it all began, the arrangement by which a jolly old toymaker based somewhere near the North Pole makes the rounds each Christmas to bring presents to all the good little boys and girls? Personally, I remember having plenty of questions for my parents about Santa, but somehow never thought to ask the most basic one: “Why does he do it?” Maybe that’s because I sensed the instant you start to peer into Santa’s origin story, the whole thing begins to unravel — at least, that’s what happens when Sergio Pablos tries to reverse-engineer the meaning of Christmas with “Klaus,” by focusing, of all things, on a scheme to save snail mail.
Now, you should know something crucial about “Klaus” going in: There’s only one way to see it, and that’s from Netflix, which commissioned the feature-length cartoon from former Disney talent Pablos (perhaps best known as the mind behind Illumination’s “Despicable Me”) and his Spain-based animation studio. It’s just one of half a dozen Christmas-themed original features debuting on the service this fall, but in many ways, it’s the most interesting, considering “Klaus” has the distinction of being Netflix’s first original animated feature — and not just a low-budget computer-rendered quickie, but a stylish return to hand-drawn animation with a look all its own.
From Netflix’s side of the equation, think of the yuletide hook as a kind of insurance policy on this particular gamble, since making an instant Christmas classic — the kind audiences would want to revisit every year, the way they do Rankin/Bass’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and CBS’ “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special — and locking it up behind a subscription service seems like a smart long-game strategy for the streamer. There’s just one problem: “Klaus” isn’t an instant Christmas classic. Like DreamWorks’ obnoxious all-purpose holiday misfire “Rise of the Guardians,” it’s more of a serviceable Christmas-themed distraction to keep the kids out of their parents’ hair for about two hours while the grown-ups wrap the presents.
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Klaus isn’t even the main character of “Klaus.” That would be a feckless brat named Jesper, the hard-to-like son of the Rockefeller-like titan behind the international postal service, or some such. You can — and many will — supply other rich-daddy types as possible inspirations for the character, though the point here is that the espresso-sipping, work-shirking Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman, an actor who for whom sounding grating is kind of a specialty) needs to be taught a lesson. Ergo, Dad gives Jesper a one-way ticket to Smeerenburg, the most remote post office on the map, where the slacker’s expected to convince the locals to send 60,000 letters, or else he might as well stay gone.
Personality-wise, Jesper may not be the most fun to be around, but as designed by Torsten Schrank, he’s an appealing-looking character: scarecrow thin, with long, gangly arms and legs, googly eyes and a goofy grin. His bulbous pink nose looks like it would make a honking sound when pinched, and his awkward ears stick out from either side of his narrow head (and glow when backlit by the sun). Another voice would have likely changed his personality for the better, although it’s the writing that’s really at fault here. Collaborating with Pablos, unproven duo Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney have cooked up the equivalent of a con-man movie, in which Jesper invents an elaborate holiday tradition as an excuse to go home, only to learn that he likes it in Smeerenburg after all.
Compared with Klaus, who becomes the unwitting patsy in his plan, Jesper is a spindly toothpick of a guy, whereas the bearded fella looks like some kind of colossus standing beside him, with a deep-bass voice to match (a wonderful use of J.K. Simmons). Klaus isn’t nearly as friendly as legend has it. He’s actually more of a hermit, a former woodsman sealed away in his cabin at the top of the mountain. Through a twist never properly explained, Jesper discovers that if he can convince the kids to write letters to Klaus, the old loner will reward them with toys, and thus Jesper can hit his postal quota (that’s right: by conning Klaus into making 60,000 toys, one for each letter received).
This is where all the revisionist Christmas mythology comes in, amid a series of amusing montages in which Jesper assists Klaus in delivering the packages to the children of Smeerenburg. He also enlists the not-quite-organic involvement of several supporting characters, including local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), who’s given up on her calling and instead started using the schoolhouse as a makeshift fish market, and surly ferry captain Mogens (Norm Macdonald), who drops Jesper on the island without mentioning the most important thing.
Turns out Smeerenburg is the feuding capital of the world, where the adults wage daily battles with one another (Joan Cusack and Will Sasso play the bitter heads of rival clans) and raise their kids to be spiteful, unhappy haters. Their pranks make for entertaining visual gags, at least, but Jesper has his work cut out for him: For his new mail system to work, he must first teach the youngsters to have fun, and he invents additional conditions as his gift plan gathers steam — like the whole naughty-versus-nice thing.
Frankly, it all seems much too complicated for what it is. And instead of making audiences love Christmas more, it raises the rather unfortunate question of why we believed it in the first place. Yes, we’ve all accepted that Christmas as celebrated was some elaborate conspiracy to brainwash children, but there’s something decidedly un-charming about depicting it as such, even with all the whimsical flourishes Pablos and company have festooned upon it. What goodwill the movie does inspire owes more to the splendid visual world than to anything the story supplies. But this much can be said for Netflix’s decision to back a hand-drawn feature: For those who return to “Klaus” in Christmases to come, the aesthetic ought to hold up far better than its CG competitors, which tend to date themselves far more quickly.