Skip to main content

It’s not a letter if it doesn’t have postage, right?

Klaus
(2019)

(SPOILERS) I guess Netflix’s negligible quality control, movie-wise, has to score a positive occasionally, and this Christmas – but fairly loosely so, ironically, in that the trappings are in scant supply for the most part – animation is an unlikely delight. A Santa Clause origins tale doesn’t sound like the stuff of a great movie – origins stories so rarely are – but Sergio Pablos’ feature debut Klaus is stylistically distinct, emotionally compelling, and frequently very funny.

Which is a godsend in animation arena where everything feels focus-tested to within an inch of its life, such that even the quality end of the market – the Pixars – are tonally and visually amorphous, however diverse their subject matter. Thus, we’re treated to a hand-drawn animation, the mention of which now seems to hearken to a forgotten age of antiquity (I wasn’t even sure Klaus wasn’t just faux-hand-drawn until I checked) and quirky character designs that do suggest someone who worked on the Disney renaissance (most particularly Hercules).

But these would only go so far if a strong screenplay wasn’t in place, and the one from Pablos with Jim Mahoney and Zach Lewis hits all the right notes, coming at the Christmas favourite from an entirely fresh angle. Jason Schwartman’s Jesper Johansson, an indolent waster, is sent by his despairing father, a rich Postmaster General, to the remote and desolate island outpost of Smeerensburg, with instructions to turn it around within a year or he’ll be cut off (six-thousand letters must be posted). Jesper finds an entirely unwelcoming town built on perpetual feuding, with little in the way of prospects for post (or schooling, as evidenced by Rashida Jones’ teacher turned fishmonger). It’s only when he meets the reclusive Klaus (JK Simmons), a woodsman with an arsenal of toys, that he hatches a scheme to meet his targets via the towns’ kids’ desire for playthings. While his motives are entirely mercenary, however, his plan sets off a chain reaction, from kids needing to learn to write (to send letters to Klaus) to the knock-on of their getting on with each other spreading to their parents.

The skill of the screenplay is making these twists look effortless and even inspired, as the principles of Christmas gift giving vis-à-vis Santa (the naughty list, doing good deeds, secretly smuggling presents into houses, even the soaring sleigh) are introduced and cemented on the fly. Naturally, there’s a strong moral, but it doesn’t feel chokingly forced as these things often do in family fare, and Jesper’s assumption that “Everybody’s out to get something, right?” is undermined, not least by himself (admittedly the philosophical probing of selfishness only extends so far, but it wouldn’t really do to cynically attribute every action to selfishness on some level in such fare).

Schwartzman’s performance reminded me a little of David Spade’s in Emperor’s New Groove, and he handles Jesper’s growth with lightness and verve. Simmons, meanwhile, is simply superb as Klaus, particularly in judging the depths of his loss. When it comes to his becoming the legend we know (“What happened after that, I can’t even comprehend”), the film might easily have choked with sentiment, but the emotion feels earned.

If there’s a criticism of Klaus, it’s a minor one; the principal families, the Ellingboes and the Krums, are granted insufficient time to develop as villains, so when they’re called upon to advance the plot (by implementing destructive measures towards Jesper and Klaus’s plans) it lacks the extra edge it might have had. But Klaus is undoubtedly a great movie, superbly styled (the terrifying hounds), with lovely visual gags (Alva introduced with a fish head) and a fine score (from Alfonso G Augilar). Even the cute kids (in the form of the Sami girl) aren’t irksome. Plus, it has that all-important indicator of a great animation: boggle-eyed chickens.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound (1945)
Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …