Klaus, a new animated film from Netflix, has all the trappings of a big, family-friendly blockbuster, but look just a little closer, and its idiosyncrasies start to show. Sergio Pablos’s picture presents us with a fanciful Santa Claus origin tale that suggests the jolly, chubby, airborne gift-giver from the North Pole was the inadvertent creation of an entitled 19th century mailman and an embittered, bird-obsessed hermit, with a little assist from some kindly Sámi tribes people. It’s awkward and weird, and yet all that awkwardness and weirdness give it personality and charm and a freewheeling, nonsensical quality that feels refreshing.
The plot is set in motion when Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), the slacker son of an unnamed Scandinavian nation’s powerful Postmaster General, is whisked away from the stately, militaristic Royal Postal Academy — where he wastes his days napping and sipping espressos while his fellow cadets learn to ride, sort mail, breed carrier pigeons, and transport fragile materials — and called to the mat for his laziness and incompetence. As punishment, Jesper’s domineering father assigns him to be the postmaster of the remote northern island-town of Smeerensburg, and gives him an ultimatum: He’ll be disowned unless he processes 6,000 pieces of mail within a year. (My God! The stakes!)
Upon arriving at the gray, dilapidated village, Jesper discovers that the local school has been transformed into a fish slaughterhouse — so vividly animated, you can almost smell the hanging fish and the innards splattered all over the walls — and that the desolate, snow-blasted hamlet is divided between two local families who’ve been warring for years, Fistful of Dollars-style. They bludgeon each other with bathtubs, commit drive-by spearings, and hurl buckets of (what else?) fish waste at one another’s hanging clean laundry. They even have a museum dedicated to their long history of feuds. (One notable event: “The Great Mooning of ’86.”) Smeerensburg is a surreally gruesome place, filled with surreally gruesome people.
You could sort of say the same for the movie. That almost all the characters seem so unlikable for so long — from the petulant Jesper to the pissy local teacher Alva (voiced by Rashida Jones), who has reinvented herself as an enraged fishmonger, to the hulking, slightly psycho toy-maker Klaus (J.K. Simmons), who lives in a lonely cabin in the woods, consumed by grief — somehow makes the whole thing that much more bracing. The elaborate series of events that lead to the creation of Santa Claus feel so hilariously reverse engineered that the picture assumes a tall-tale quality. The more ridiculous the story gets, the more endearing the film becomes — which in turn renders all the emotional fireworks that come at the end (as they must — this is not a spoiler) genuinely surprising and effective.
The goofy, phony mythmaking gets a nice assist from the animation itself, which, in contrast to so much recent American studio fare, is two-dimensional, giving it the airiness of something made up on the fly. The character designs, too, are likably unlikely: The figures look like they were made out of sticks, and they have tiny feet and thin angular legs that seem to make them teeter and totter in odd directions, as if adhering to a gravitational logic different from our own; you can’t quite situate these people in the real world.
Pablos does incorporate computerized lighting effects, which gives the movie some of that rounded, three-dimensional sheen we’re familiar with from Pixar and Dreamworks and 21st-century Disney. I’m sure kids raised on those titles won’t notice that much of a difference. Still, Klaus treads an admirably fine line: It’s just fast, polished, and heartwarming enough to keep the kids engaged over the holidays, and just weird enough to intrigue those of us who want more.