If I’ve learned anything as a Christmas-movie historian, it’s that it’s very easy to get Santa Claus origin stories wrong. Lean too hard into the explanations, and you strip away the wonder. Focus too much on whether or not people should believe in Santa, and you paint yourself into a quasi-theological corner.
The animated “Klaus” — opening in theaters before its upcoming Netflix debut — skillfully avoids both of these traps, crafting a how-it-all-began saga with storybook visuals and genuine bursts of real feeling. It’s far more successful with holiday magic than it is with character-based comedy, but that’s not enough of a flaw to keep young audiences (and their parents) from potentially turning this feature into a cherished annual tradition.
Despite the title, “Klaus” isn’t based on the popular graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Dan Mora — although with a postman and a schoolteacher among its principal characters, it’s hard not to imagine writers Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney (working from a story by director Sergio Pablos, an animation veteran) dipping into Rankin-Bass’ 1970 TV classic “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” for inspiration.
We begin with spoiled young Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) slumming his way through the Royal Postman Academy, making no effort whatsoever since he assumes that his father, the Postmaster General (Sam McMurray), will continue to coddle him. But dad has other plans, shipping Jesper off to the remote island village of Smeerensburg; if Jesper doesn’t process 6,000 letters in his first year there, he will be forever cut off from the family fortune.
Taken to the island by grumpy boatman Mogens (Norm Macdonald), Jesper finds himself in a town divided by a generations-old feud between the Krums (led by a matriarch played by Joan Cusack) and the Ellingboes (whose patriarch is voiced by Will Sasso). Because of the fighting, no one sends any mail, and local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), bereft of students, has taken to working as a fishmonger to raise the money to get out of town.
When Jesper accidentally delivers a child’s drawing to loner Klaus (J.K. Simmons), the woodsman recruits Jesper to help him bring the boy a hand-crafted toy from Klaus’ large collection. This incident incites Jesper to action: if he can get the children to write letters to Klaus for toys, he can hit his quota. And when some kids tell the postman they can’t write, he encourages them to attend Alva’s classes. The naughty list is born when a kid who harasses Jesper gets coal in his stocking instead of a gift. And as the Santa Claus mythology is born, a small town’s citizens start, with some resistance, to get along with each other.
“Klaus” works best when it’s having fun with that mythos – the reason a child thinks he sees “flying” reindeer is a great bit of set-up-and-pay-off physical comedy – and when we see the impact that Klaus’ generosity and Jesper’s hard work has on the feuding populace of Smeerensburg. Pablos and his team give the visuals a lovely luster, with delightful character design reminiscent of vintage illustrations: Klaus, Jesper and Alva read as more realistic, the feuding Krums and Ellingboes get more comically caricatured treatment, and the Sámi people (also known as Laplanders), who assist Klaus in his workshop, appear both sweet and stately (all the while speaking their own, never-translated language).
Even if Jesper’s character arc reads like that of many Hallmark Channel heroines – city slicker comes to small town with selfish intent, winds up falling for the homespun denizens – “Klaus” gets the sentimentality just right. As we learn just why Klaus has all those toys sitting around, or we see a dejected Jesper find hope from bright-eyed young Sámi girl Margú (Neda M. Ladda), the film gives us those heart-tugs that so many of us want out of our Christmas entertainment. But to get there, we have to endure a lot of whiny, bratty Jesper and sardonic Mogens, neither of whom are nearly as funny or charming as the movie thinks they are.
But Christmas is all about anticipation, and enduring those early, clunky scenes is totally worthwhile once you get to the lovely, soaring second and third acts of “Klaus.”
“Klaus” premieres Nov. 15 on Netflix.