Your family’s Elf DVD is worn down to the label. You can recite The Santa Clause from memory. The same list of holiday specials run on repeat every winter season. Klaus (2019), an animated Santa Claus origin story from director Sergio Pablos, is a fresh-cut Douglas fir in your living room. Lighthearted, earnest, and brimming with more holiday cheer than a warm cup of hot chocolate, Klaus is a worthy addition to the Christmas movie rotation.
Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is the lazy, rich son of a postmaster. When he attempts to fail out of the postal academy, he’s sent to Smeerensburg, a desolate fishing village near the Arctic Circle. To prove his worth and return home, Jesper must mail 6,000 letters from the towns’ citizens in a year. To complicate Jesper’s mission, the town’s two major factions, the Elingboes and the Krums, are engaged in a Hatfield-McCoy-style feud.
The town teacher, Alva (Rashida Jones), has converted the school into a fish market because Smeerensburg’s residents are preoccupied with the intensifying squabbles. Unable to deliver any letters, Jesper ventures to meet Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a lonely woodsman who lives in isolation. Klaus is a toymaker, and he asks Jesper to deliver his toys to the town children. The children begin to send letters to Klaus, kickstarting Smeerensburg’s mail service.
Pablos is a Disney-animation veteran who worked on classics like Treasure Planet, Tarzan, and Hercules. He’s also credited with the original story idea for Despicable Me, but try not to hold it against him. Klaus is hand drawn, although advanced and lesser-used animation techniques separate it from its peers. It’s stylish, applying striking oranges, yellows, and blues in spite of its dreary winter setting. Needly trees, misty air, and ramshackle lodges convey the dismal setting without giving in to bleak, monochromatic landscapes.
Jesper, the sniveling picture of privilege, is quickly humbled by Smeerensburg’s bitter cold and belligerent denizens. By the end, he’s almost someone worth rooting for. If you don’t love Jesper, Simmons’s wise, endearing Santa more than makes up for it. Jones and Norm Macdonald (who stars as the island’s derisive ferryman) provide comedic beats in a children’s movie that’s unusually funny.
Smeerensburg’s youth lead an effort to transform the village, which, motivated by the promise of toys or not, is encouraging. When the town’s children file back into school to learn how to write letters to Santa, Alva is stuck using her savings to buy school supplies. If nothing else, the movie mirrors reality.
Klaus expands the traditional list of holiday movies with something made after the turn of the century. Better yet, it’s actually good. Santa’s origin story isn’t a sacred mythos, and by turning the tale on its head, Pablos and co. captured holiday magic.