Jesper and Klaus

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. Not kill a dragon or find a grail but a task all the same.

Smeerensburg is at war with itself, a generations-old feud between rival clans the Ellingboes and the Krums having roped in all of the town’s residents, who devote all their energies to vendettas. 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’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 Klaus and Jesper, delivery is completed and a rubicon is crossed. Klaus is not scary or mean, it turns out, so much as a very sad one.

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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Marie Antoinette

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette



It’s tempting to look at writer/director Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Marie Antoinette as a coded self-portrait – young woman born into immense privilege, continuing in the family business, expected to have an understanding of the hoi polloi though with no experience thereof, allowed to indulge her whims, and so on.


Perhaps it’s a better film seen that way, because as a straightforward biopic it’s full of problems, chief of those being the inertia at the centre, where Kirsten Dunst’s Marie – the Austrian princess bought in by the French to produce an heir – and her spouse the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) sit like a pair of bland puddings while around them wheel a menagerie of exotic creatures. Rip Torn’s baritone adds fruitcake richness to his portrayal of King Louis XV, old but still full of priapic desire for his mistress, Mme Du Barry, played by Asia Argento with a look on her face like she’s got a boiler-room of naughtiness going on between her legs. There’s also Danny Huston, as Marie’s worldly wily older brother, drafted in to help the Dauphin work out what to do in the bedroom – the Dauphin might be gay, terminally inbred or just bored, who knows? And around them a court of looks and whispers. These exotics and intriguers apart, it’s a languid portrait of inert, disconnected people that at every turn threatens to become inert and disconnected itself. Coppola knows this, hence the ripeness of the supporting characters, hence the use of modern pop music (Aphex Twin, New Order, The Cure) on the soundtrack, the largely 1980s choices being another hint that this is really more about Ms C, who became a teenager in the middle of that decade.


It drifts along, the Dauphin doing a bit of hunting, Marie getting back to nature in the model farm she set up at the Trianon palace – where she indulges in the sort of mock bucolic playing about with cows and sheep that well-to-do young women now ape with their organic foods and working holidays on farms. And then, waking up as if from a “what the hell was I doing?” reverie, Coppola gets a spurt on with a finale that packs in the “the peasants are revolting”, “let them eat cake”, “off with their heads” headlines in one urgent rush.


Coppola isn’t delivering a history lesson. And the way that she covers the well known events, merely acknowledging their existence, makes that abundantly clear. The clothes are splendid, the locations genuine (some of it was even shot at Versailles), the acting superb, and it’s a fabulously rich summoning of an atmosphere of suffocating protocol. Dramatic, though? Hardly.




Marie Antoinette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006





Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore



Hollywood in look but in tone something else, this is the odd tale of an intellectually precocious, loquacious, speccy, blazer-wearing 15-year-old (Jason Schwartzman) who falls for one of his teachers, pretty Olivia Williams (think of a non-irritating Liz Hurley with a couple of decent dinners inside her). Unfortunately, misanthropic  local steel baron Bill Murray (back on Groundhog Day form) is equally smitten. Faint heart never won fair lady and the oddly mismatched and yet similarly obsessive love rivals are soon at it hammer and tongues. Very weird and often touching romantic comedy ensues as these two strange characters are dissected, helped along by acting that’s all played straight, no one raises even so much as an ironic eyebrow. There’s a nicely chosen soundtrack with some old favourites (Kinks, Stones, Cat Stevens, Donovan), though it’s not the usual suspects by all those guys, more the offbeat, whimsical examples of their work. As with Anderson’s first effort, Bottle Rocket, keeping it fresh seems to be the idea. It works.

© Steve Morrissey 1999


Rushmore – at Amazon