For a while, Netflix was the streaming service of choice for families, a purchase made easy due to Netflix creating an entire separate profile for children’s entertainment. However, that stronghold now has serious competition in the form of new streaming service challengers HBO Max, which will house Sesame Street and a slew of new original kids programming, and the more threatening Disney+, which will launch with hundreds of family-friendly properties that kids and parents alike are already familiar with. To keep up with the House of Mouse, Netflix will have to rapidly expand their children’s entertainment offerings.
That initiative starts with Netflix’s first original animated movie, Klaus. Directed by Sergio Pablos (Disney’s Treasure Island and Tarzan), Klaus is a compelling first entry and could signal the way forward for Netflix, offering visually distinctive animated entertainment that could prove enticing to kids and their parents alike. Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, also streaming on Netflix, the alternate Santa origin story Klaus looks like no other animated film released in recent memory. Trafficking in a style that looks ornate and hand-drawn, Klaus creates an almost naturalistic lighting and features wonderfully expressive and lively character designs. Its gorgeous style will keep audiences engaged even when the story starts to lag.
Klaus centers on Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the lazy, entitled son of the head of the Royal Post Office. Jesper’s cozy, pampered lifestyle has kept him from actively participating in postman training because he knows he can coast by on his father’s dime. Finally, his father gets fed up with his spoiled son and ships Jesper off to Smeerensburg, “the land of feuds.” Jesper will be forced to stay in the cold, violent Smeerensburg, where no one has ever been able to successfully start a post office, unless he can get 6,000 letters sent in one year. The townsfolk of Smeerensburg, caught up in something of a Hatfield-McCoy-like feud, are so subsumed by their petty conflicts that they have no need for letter writing or even school, which forces the town’s school teacher Alma (Rashida Jones) to become a fishmonger.
The whole endeavor seems useless until Jesper meets the physically intimidating Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a toy-maker who would like Jesper to help him deliver his toys to the town’s children. Once one child receives a gift, all of Smeerensburg’s kids begin writing letters to Klaus so they can receive toys as well. Those that don’t know how to write turn to Alma to learn. The whole operation leads to Smeerensburg to become a more enlightened place, until the older townsfolk driving the decades-long feuds conspire away to end Jesper and Klaus’ operation for good.
Until Klaus enters in at the 25-minute mark, the film sort of feels like it could have been produced as propaganda for the U.S. Postal Service rather than a Christmas movie, but Klaus’ introduction helps shift things into a clever new origin story for Santa. The kids begin inventing the legend of Santa all on their own, unable to explain the ways and reasons for why and how their toys are being delivered, even though there are practical answers. It’s a neat little example of how myths come to be. Klaus is given a heartbreaking back story that is resolved in a beautiful fashion, and the town of Smeerensburg moving past their conflict-filled history feels like a lesson in not holding on to traditions simply because they are tradition. That said, Jesper’s story unfortunately follows the predictable trajectory of a selfish character having his true motivations revealed, only to realize he had a change of heart along the way and a treacly original song feels unnecessary tacked on.
Still, the feel-good reimagining of the Santa legend, talented voice cast, and impressive animation style makes Klaus a winning first entry in Netflix’s original feature animation efforts. With stiff competition on the horizon, they’ll need more projects in a similar vein.
Klaus begins streaming on Netflix Friday, November 8th.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.