“Even when the plotting of the film becomes a bit overstuffed, as the script takes on a few too many plot threads for it to connect in a meaningful way, it’s hard to dislike the steady earnestness that holds firm throughout.”
by Ken Bakely
The experience of watching Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is, for the most part, a fairly endearing one. Taking place within a gorgeously realized landscape, it’s a movie that feels deftly responsive yet cleanly robust from a visual perspective, and above all, it feels genuine and thoughtful in its intentions. Even when the plotting of the film becomes a bit overstuffed, as the script takes on a few too many plot threads for it to connect in a meaningful way, it’s hard to dislike the steady earnestness that holds firm throughout. The basic outline of the plot traces a reliable formula, following Jesper (voice of Jason Schwartzman) a lazy young man who has lived off the influence and wealth of his father, the powerful postmaster general. However, Jesper’s idle, selfish lifestyle has caught up to him, and he’s given an ultimatum: relocated to a rural arctic village, he has one year to build a successful mail system in the area, or be cut off from his family’s fortune for good. Brainstorming ways to jumpstart the postal service of the town with as little effort as possible, he hatches a scheme to convince children to write letters to a local resident requesting gifts, which will be granted if they have behaved well. The recipient? An aging carpenter who lives in the woods and has a long white beard, and who is, of course, named Klaus (voice of J. K. Simmons).
The scheme seems to work pretty well, and the effects of well-rewarded good behavior seem to have genuinely good residual effects across the town, which has otherwise fallen into disarray due to a longstanding feud between the community’s two preeminent families. But as complications mount from the intersection of these various aspects – Jesper’s true motivations, the mysteries of Klaus’s background, and the mounting distaste among the town’s leaders to sudden change – the scripting problems in Klaus become more apparent. Since this aims to be enveloping and endearing holiday fare, everything seeks to be resolved in as clear and altruistic a way as possible, but when so much has been assembled, and then crossed over with each other in (perhaps overly) complex plotting, it’s hard for everything to feel natural and conducive. Yet at the same time, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Pablos doesn’t provide us with a clear vision in other respects, as the accomplished visual look of the film does go a long way in impressing in us the mood and tone that he might not have achieved as well with the script. Simply put, the overriding aim of the movie is clearly predicated on the efforts to build its world. Landscapes and characters alike are realized with a splendor that conjures up memories of the great hand-drawn animations of the past, and individual setpieces – from the small spaces of Klaus’s workshop to the various stages that the town goes through – are quite memorable in their own respects.
There is something intrinsically engaging to the whole idea of this movie, though perhaps this also works to enhance the disappointment felt when the film feels the most stuck in its narrative issues. With the successes of one quality and the mixed fortunes of another, Klaus comes off as somewhere perpetually in-between, but never in the sense that the movie becomes uninteresting or rote. Pablos has a knack for the nuanced here, not only as evidenced by the aesthetic, but by even the characterizations themselves, where people go through some undoubtedly fascinating journeys. And it certainly feels better to know that a movie that tries to build as dense a world as this one can exist in some form, rather than one where any chance to truly swing at some fences is shot down as untenable. Through the sheer achievements represented by the beautiful animation, we certainly don’t mind the adventure as a whole, and my guess is that this is well on its way to becoming Netflix’s new foray into the stable of modern-day Christmas standbys. Even when we wish that the movie would better focus its aim and scope in telling its story, Pablos’s ability to craft a well-realized world is never in doubt, nor is the thoughtful charm and spirit which drives the whole movie to begin with.