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When is the best time to watch Klaus, an animated film aimed at the 2019 Christmas market? In February 2021, obviously. Though why not? Here in London there’s snow on the ground and the coronavirus is keeping a lot of people indoors still. Just add a piece of dense fruit cake and a glass of decent whisky and absolutely why not?

It’s the story of how Santa Claus became Santa Claus, or Father Christmas if you like, since the two characters are now almost one. Not the Santa story as we already know it. Actually, come to think of it, do we already know it?

Whether we think we do or we’re sure we don’t, Klaus finds a spot in the woodwork into which it can fit a whole extra bit of lore – the new bit is all about Jesper (voice: Jason Schwartzman), the spoilt grown-up son exiled by his rich and permanently disappointed dad to the snowy remote town of Smeerensburg and ordered to stay there until he has revived its postal service. It’s not killing a dragon or finding a grail but it’s a task all the same.

Smeerensburg is at war with itself, a generations-old feud between rival clans the Ellingboes and the Krums with all the town’s residents on one side or another. No one writes letters or posts them. The post office is a wreck, the local teacher (voice: Rashida Jones) has turned the school into a fishmonger’s and so none of the kids can write. Civilisation, in essence, has broken down. It is a dark miserable place.

Blundering about like the entitled brat he is, Jesper eventually half-accidentally half-coercively takes his first letter off a sad child. It turns out it’s destined for a gruff and scary old hermit who lives out of town. Klaus (JK Simmons) lives in a shack full of toys for the children he never had. After much vamping of the getting-to-know-you sort between the two men, Jesper completes his delivery to Klaus and a rubicon is crossed. Klaus is not scary or mean, it turns out, so much as just very sad.

This tiny act of engagement has unintended consequences, which soon ripple out and start to multiply. And when the townspeople see the positive benefits that flow from kindly actions, the pace quickens. Reluctantly at first, but at increasing speed, almost everyone stops being mean.

Klaus‘s main conceit is that the whole Santa shebang comes about as a series of unconnected events, more accident than design. The naughty and nice list. The red Santa suit. The flying reindeer and sleigh. The delivery down chimneys. All explained, quickly, satisfying, in terms that are less magical and more practical (though still a bit magical, in case you’re worrying that Klaus is killing the wonder of Christmas).

Mrs Krum and Mr Ellingboe
Mrs Krum and Mr Ellingboe

Co-director Sergio Pablos is an old Disney hand, having worked in what’s called the Disney Renaissance era on films like Aladdin. He reaches back to that era and hand-drawn techniques from even further back, all the way to Snow White, for a computer-assisted old-school animation reminding us how expressionistic Disney used to be – Smeerensburg, for example, isn’t just a town, it’s a brooding, sagging bag of dark and angular shapes.

With his shaggy beard and wooden toys, Klaus comes across almost as an artisanal hipster while Jesper is more your MBA-wielding consultant using advertising razzmatazz to hook Klaus up to an existing brand – Christmas – and exploit it for its vertical and horizontal marketing synergies. At one point Jesper, explaining to the town’s children the win-win of going along with the whole Christmas thing of being nice to each other, is deliberately represented as if he were a drug pusher at the school gate.

The locals are not forced into doing Christmas, they’re gentled into it. Klaus is nudge theory in bite-size chunks.

The name Klaus rhymes with house, by the way, rather than pause, a nod to the myth’s supposed Nordic origins (Saint Nick himself was Turkish). It’s a declaration that this is an origin story, which it obviously is. Klaus’s big achievement is to peel back the layers and yet also keep them intact. It’s undeniably a smart movie, though the really sharp stuff is front-loaded. Once Jesper and Klaus have got the Christmas show rolling, there’s no real doubting which way this is heading, the Ellingboe and Krum elders’ attempts at derailing terrorism to one side.

The arc is from the novel to the familiar, from the smart to the cheery, from piping hot to glühwein warm. Goodwill to all cotton-wools a film that doesn’t attain the classic status it looks initially like it has in the bag. As for the notion that it’s a Christmassy remake of Kevin Costner’s mad folly The Postman – mailman restores civilisation to post-apocalyptic world single-handed – surely not.

Klaus – get the music from the film at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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