Just when you thought that cinema had exhausted a way to tell the story of Christmas, along comes “Klaus,” an animated feature on from director, Sergio Pablos in his directorial debut.
The screenplay by Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney starts out with Jesper, voiced by Jason Schwartzman. Intent on teaching him a lesson, his father puts him in the postal academy where he distinguishes himself as the worst student. Schwartzman’s voice carries the bratty, selfish whims of someone who thinks he can skate by in life.
Frustrated that his son has no ambition, other than “silk sheets and servants at the ready,” he decides to send Jesper off to the postal station at Smeerensburg, somewhere above the Arctic Circle, a desolate place full of feuding locals and very little happiness.
Pablos cleverly transitions Jesper from the comforts of a safety net into having to fend for himself as he makes his way to Smeerensburg, finding his post in shambles along with a lack of needing the postal service for anything – no one sends mail.
On his arrival, a trickster of a riverboat skipper encourages Jesper to ring the town bell, raising the ire of the feuding Krums and Ellingboes. There’s a humor with which the animation plays to this particular scene – Jesper becomes very small under the weight of the two feuding families.
Once the snow settles down from that early skirmish, Jesper finds his surroundings to be in very poor shape, a result of the town simply not caring for one another. Pablos wisely drops in a potential love interest for Jesper in Alva, a teacher in a town full of children, and coincidentally parents, who simply don’t care. So, she has become the source of all things fish. Voiced by Rashida Jones, Alva has desires, but there’s an unknown reason why she keeps herself in Smeerensburg – none of the potential students is interested in learning.
It definitely wasn’t out of love or a potential for love.
As Jesper gets settled, he seeks out a way to meet his father’s requirements – 6,000 letters in a year or else he’s out of the family.
By pigeonholing Jesper in to a corner, Pablos, whose background is in Disney animated films such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Hercules,” and “Tarzan,” forces the character to be creative at a time when there is no hope.
In a search to find a spark, Jesper discovers a lone mountain retreat with a mysterious occupant – a toy maker who isn’t making toys. We later learn that Klaus is the man who inhabits that isolated retreat. Voiced by Academy Award winning J. K. Simmons, Klaus initially comes off as aloof towards Jesper. However, Jesper also sees the potential in Klaus as he explores the abandoned toy room full of clever trinkets.
It is here that the film’s theme, “an act of kindness begets another act of kindness,” that the story really starts to pick up steam, especially when one child receives a present that just absolutely makes her day. The theme is a play on “word-of-mouth,” something technological social networks like Facebook and Twitter are today.
Of course, the happiness that Jesper’s and Klaus’s friendship brings threatens the ongoing feud between the Krum’s and the Ellingboe’s. It took me a moment to notice Joan Cusack’s voice as Mrs. Krum, but once I caught the cadence, she is a perfect “voice” for the countering dissent to the happiness that Jesper could potentially bring to the town. There’s a cute scene in which Mrs. Krum takes Jesper on a tour of the history behind the feuds with the Ellingboe’s, something akin to the cave drawings we’ve seen of prehistoric man’s evolution.
There are also moments where the good deeds of the isolated village reaches other villages, including those of Margu (Neda Magrethe Labba). Language is a barrier when Margu tries to convey what she dreams of having. Eventually Jesper learns enough about himself to be able to surprise Margu with a gift.
The story tends to be a bit on the nose as Klaus transforms into what we understand him to be during this upcoming season of giving. “Klaus” plays much like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in that our protagonist must learn the error of their ways in order to grow.
It eventually leads into a plan to destroy the goodwill and a valiant attempt to rescue that goodwill, even if the story signals good intent in place of actual good deeds. In the end, Jesper finds his voice; finds a reason to exist beyond his silk sheets and servants.
“Klaus” finds a solid footing to offer a new twist on a holiday classic with some uneven results. But, the message is clear: we are our own best friend and our own worst enemy, and by reaching out to someone else, we can discover ourselves.