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

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

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.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

Time wounds all heels.

Go West (1940)
(SPOILERS) Comedy westerns were nothing new when the Marx Brothers succumbed – Buster Keaton had made one with the same title fifteen years earlier – but theirs served to underline how variable the results could be. For every Bob Hope (Son of Paleface) there’s a Seth McFarlane (A Million Ways to Die in the West). In theory, the brothers riding roughshod over such genre conventions ought to have been uproarious, but they’d rather run out of gas by this point, and the results are, for the most part, sadly pedestrian. Even Go West's big train-chase climax fails to elicit the once accustomed anarchy that was their stock in trade.

Shall we bind the deal with a kiss? Or, five dollars in cash? You lose either way.

The Big Store (1941)
(SPOILERS) Three go mad in a department store. The results are undoubtedly more diverting than low point Go West, but it feels as if there is even more flotsam to wade through to get to the good stuff in The Big Store, which is almost exclusively delivered by Groucho as private detective and bodyguard Wolf J Flywheel. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the climax is one of the better ones, an extended chase sequence through the store that is frequently quite inventive.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …