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Non-Review Review: Klaus

Around midway through Klaus, the film’s title character has an introspective moment. The film’s protagonist, a wiry and self-interested postman named Jesper, has decided that Klaus need not settle for delivering the toys that he has already handcrafted. Instead, Klaus could fashion new toys for all the boys and girls of the local community. Klaus’ mood darkens. He stares off into middle distance. “I don’t make toys,” he tells Jesper, in an understated manner. After a beat, he clarifies, “Not anymore.”

It is a very strange moment for a family-friendly animated movie that promises a glimpse at the origin story of Christmas. It obviously hints at a dark and traumatic back story for the muscular woodsman. Klaus has experienced things. It is the children’s movie equivalent of the shell-shocked combat veteran, of Sylvester Stallone retreating from his failure at the start of Cliffhanger or Sergeant Powell having sworn off the use of his sidearm in Die Hard. What horrors could Klaus have experienced that would have made him stop designing adorable handcrafted toys for children?

Snow bad ideas.

It’s a very weird beat, one that feels all the weird for the way in which it tonally clashes with the more openly absurd slapstick elements of the plot or the occasional nods to contemporary pop culture. Klaus is a very odd film, which seems to have little idea of what it actually wants to be. It is a mishmash of themes and influences, awkwardly bouncing between various extremes and never settling on any one long enough to find a grove. It’s a film that really needed more time on the original story break and scripting phases, requiring a stronger vision of what exactly Klaus is supposed to be.

This is a shame, because Klaus looks absolutely gorgeous.

Making a play for the animation market.

Of course, it is obvious what Klaus is supposed to be. It is supposed to represent a triumphant return to old-fashioned hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, which went out of style following the underwhelming box office performance of The Princess and the Frog a decade ago. Indeed, many of the key figures working on Klaus can trace their origins back to the Disney Renaissance. Director Sergio Pablos worked on nineties classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Tarzan. Netflix’s director of character animation James Baxter worked on Beauty and the Beast.

Klaus is striking in technical terms. The character designs are stunning, with those long lines and expressive features that lend themselves to both dynamic action and effective emoting. The traditional line-work is beautifully complimented by state of the art computer-generated lighting and shading. This helps to subtly layer the film’s world, to create a sense of these characters moving through a three-dimensional space. It is a welcome reminder that classic techniques and new technologies need not exist at odds with one another.

Keep us posted.

There is so much to appreciate in Klaus, in purely visual terms. The production design is striking. Despite the film’s nominally Russian setting, Klaus has a decidedly American Gothic aesthetic, all pitchforks and stovepipe hats. Personality is not expressed through dialogue or action so much as outward appearance, with the characters often existing at the intersection of classic Disney and Tim Burton. This stylistic collision makes more sense than it might initially appear; Burton himself had worked as an artist at Disney during the company’s troubled eighties period.

Even the background art is beautiful, whether the remote village to which Jesper finds himself assigned or the quiet woods through which Klaus stalks. These designs recall the work of Eyvind Earles on Sleeping Beauty, offering a heavily stylised and almost otherworldly setting through which these characters might move. Houses and trees jut out from the landscape and odd angles, often layered upon one another like a collage. It is genuinely magical, a reminder of how much has been lost in the rush to embrace computer-generated animation as the primary mode for this kind of storytelling.

X-Mas appeal.

However, Klaus also serves as a reminder that so many of the classic and beloved animated films were more than just a showcase for design. The types of films that Klaus evokes spoke to a generation of children because they understood that storytelling was a union of narrative and technique, that it wasn’t enough for the character designs or background settings to look stunning, that there had to be something stronger underpinning it all. It is impossible to separate the power of Beauty and the Beast from its animation, but that power was also rooted in its status as a “tale as old as time.”

Narratively, Klaus is muddled and unfocused. Part of this is down to the weird choice of Jesper as a lead character. On paper, Jesper is a pretty solid protagonist, albeit a challenging one. He is a privileged young man who has never worked a day in his life, and who wants nothing more than to return to the life of luxury that his family assures him. This is a far cry from the spirit of adventure and wanderlust that defines so many animated protagonists; Belle’s desire to find “more than this provincial life” in Beauty and the Beast, or Quasimodo’s curiousity about the world in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Stamp of approval?

Still, Jesper isn’t exactly unworkable. It is possible to construct a compelling narrative about a selfish and self-interested character who comes to a wider understanding of himself and the larger world; The Emperor’s New Groove remains a sorely underrated Disney film that tackles these sorts of themes. However, Klaus never manages to strike the right balance with Jesper. The problem isn’t so much that Jesper is unlikable, it’s that he’s insufferable. His arc is pretty obvious from the moment that he appears, but there’s little in the character that makes the audience want to invest in that arc.

In some ways, this speaks to an awkwardness and insecurity within Klaus. The film seems genuinely afraid of sincerity. The real beating heart of Klaus belongs to the title character, the lonely woodsman who lives an isolated existence at the edge of the island and who has an incredible reservoir of compassion for children. As strange as it might be for Klaus to paint its version of Santa Claus as a tragic figure, there is an endearing and appealing earnestness to the character as played by J.K. Simmons, but the movie seems wary of committing to that and so marginalises him in the narrative.

Just Klaus.

Klaus instead aspires towards “attitude.” Jesper is a wry smart-ass who resents responsibility and maturity. The film features several montages set to popular music, including an early sequence that plays against the Heavy’s How You Like Me Now? One sequence caps off a confrontation between Jesper and a bullying kid with a hiphop beat that warns, “that’s what you get when you mess with the postman.” It’s awkward, and ill-judged, reflecting the way in which so much mass-produced popular culture must be steeped in self-aware irony to make to it palatable to consumers.

As a result, Klaus offers a film that unfolds against the backdrop of pre-industrial Russia that is consciously designed to resonate with the kids of today, in a manner that arguably dates the film as much as the setting would. At one point, a character laments that since Jesper arrived and since Klaus started delivering presents, people spend their days at “block parties, hay rides and cookouts.” This feels like transparent and cynical pandering, assuming that its target audience could not be engaged with a more timeless narrative that didn’t transparently pander to its understanding of their lives.

Teach’s own…

This is reflected in the movie’s central plot, which effectively hinges on the idea that gift-giving at Christmas can heal all of the world’s ills. When Jesper arrives on the island, he finds a fractured society trapped in a perpetual gang war between two feuding families. The ethos of the island can be summed up in the simple statement that “Krums and Ellingboes don’t mix.” The origins of this feud are never explored, the differences between the families never explained. It feels like an awkward attempt to engage with the modern pressing issue of heightened polarisation and the death of civility.

There is a kernel of an idea there that might be developed in interesting directions, a fascinating study of factionalism and tribalism that could maybe offer some insight into the modern world. However, Klaus simply uses the feud as a vehicle for a variety of impressive set pieces and for unconvincing emotional stakes. Klaus is a Christmas film, but has settled into a depressingly materialistic view of Christmas – where people can only be trusted to behave with the promise of reward.

North polarisation?

The film tries to wrap a heartwarming message around that idea, with Klaus observing that “any truly selfless act inevitably sparks another” and Jesper journeying towards genuine selflessness, but it feels very hollow and cynical. Klaus doesn’t argue that the true meaning of Christmas is friends or family or celebration, but instead the expectation of presents and toys. This is a world where children learn how to read so they can write letters requesting toys, and where the local post office thrives on this system by selling stamps to the kids writing these letters.

This might be a little too cynical. This might be reading too much into Klaus. However, it demonstrates the gulf that exists between the film and the sorts of classics that it deliberately invokes. Klaus doesn’t so much evoke the classic Disney films as the awkward imitations that sprung up in the wake of the studio’s early nineties success – films like An American Tale or Ferngully or Anastasia. These films were solid examples of the form, but never managed to resonate in the same way as the finest examples of the form, because they lacked the same spark and imagination underpinning the animation.

Ex-Jesper-ated.

Klaus is a film that needs a stronger creative hand, a firmer grasp of its tone and greater faith in its own audience. It is a film has invested so much in the mechanics of how it wants to present this narrative that the story itself has become something of an afterthought.

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