A common pitfall of animation start-ups is spending their money on famous names as voice actors instead of higher end animation and better gag writers.
But Netflix upends that standing rule with its first animated feature, “Klaus.” Casting Jason Schwartzman as the voice of the lead, a postman from the past who “discovers” Santa and helps invent the holiday tradition of writing letters to Santa for presents delivered on Christmas, was inspired.
This isn’t one of those one-liner loaded Dreamworks cartoons. But Wes Anderson pal Schwartzman, with his quirky line-readings, eccentric pauses and the like, makes every line funny or at least light-hearted enough to come off.
In the old country in the fairytale early 19th century, Jesper is the lazy son of the postmaster general of the Royal Post Office.
“You know how long it took to PRESS this uniform? I don’t either, but SOMEbody took the time…”
Dad sends Jesper away to prove himself, to the furthest reaches of civilization — snowy Smeerensburg. He’s got to get the post office there up and running, and deliver 6,000 letters before he can even consider getting promoted back into the real world.
And those 6,000 letters never look more out of reach than the minute he is dropped off by the smart aleck ferryman (Norm MacDonald). Nobody here writes. The whole town is wholly consumed by an ages-old feud.
Everybody fights everybody else. Constantly. The factions are led by Mrs. Krum (Joan Cusack) and Mr. Ellingboe (Will Sasso). They all have mailboxes, but near as we can tell, they’ve never been used.
Jesper has to trick a small child into buying a stamp just to MAIL back a drawing the child made that blew out of a window and into the wannabe postman’s hands.
And that little act of, well, extortion sets our whole story in motion. That first “letter” falls in the hands of the inhabitant of The Woodsman’s Cabin, a hermit’s house Jesper stops at trying to drum up some business.
The woodsman (J.K. Simmons) is a hulking, white-bearded figure who loves his axe and has filled his trees with birdhouses (“Totally normal…not a symptom of mental illness in ANY way.”) and his cabin with toys he’s carved, hammered, painted and stored. And he gives Jesper a package to deliver to the lonely child whose forlorn drawing touched him.
Boom! There it is, Santa’s “Origin Story,” just like The Joker’s — without the facepaint.
The little boy gets the first-ever gift in Smeerensburg. His peers see it and want a toy of their own. Who do they write to, again? And hey, “We don’t know HOW to write! Who can teach us?”
The postman isn’t the only useless civil servant in Smeerensburg. Alva (Rashida Jones) was hired to be a teacher.
“I took a teaching job at a place where people don’t send their kids to school!”
She makes ends meet as a fish monger.
“Can we open a window in here? I can’t…really pretend…any longer…”
So the teacher is reluctantly recruited to teach the kids how to write letters to this woodsman, “Klaus,” and the postman has to convince this Klaus fellow to donate his toys. And Klaus, naturally, wants to come along for the deliveries.
The postal coach has to lose its wheels to become a sleigh, the tired nag pulling it replaced with reindeer, and bit by bit, Jesper adds to the myth. Gifts are left next to the fireplace. Maybe in a stocking you hang from the mantel.
Bully writes for a toy? Maybe we just drop lumps of coal in his stocking.
“‘Naughty list’ he calls it.” And whispering, “TRUST me. You do NOT want to be on the naughty list!”
The back-engineering of the holiday traditions are ingenious and offbeat. Anybody over the age of five will jump just ahead of the story, here and there, seeing “Oh, THAT’s going to be Santa’s Workshop,’ and ‘THIS is where Santa gets his helpers in the workshop.”
The look of the animation is an angular, broad and slightly under-animated hybrid of Chuck Jones and Tim Burton’s styles. “Klaus” is closer to old TV specials animation than the lush CGI of Pixar, Sony, Blue Sky or Dreamworks.
It’s not remotely as polished as the earlier contenders in the animated children’s film field, but “Klaus” is good enough to have earned a theatrical release, on a par with MGM’s “The Addams Family,” in any event.
An annual holiday classic? Probably not. But you can count on a return visit from “Klaus” every holiday season, as long as there’s a Netflix.
MPAA Rating: PG
Cast: The voices of Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, J. K. Simmons, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso and Norm McDonald
Credits: Directed by Sergio Pablos, script by Zach Lewis, Jim Mahoney and Sergio Pablos. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:38