Klaus (2019)

Last year we were big fans of Netflix's entry into the family-friendly fray, but this new movie fell flat for us.

The plot follows Jesper, the spoiled rich son of the Postmaster General. His behavior and attitude are cribbed so closely from The Emperor's New Groove that we thought the voice actor was David Spade (it's actually Jason Schwartzman). To shock him into acting like an adult, Jesper's father banishes him to a remote city on a far north island, tasked with re-establishing the post office there and stamping at least 6,000 letters over the next year.

When he gets there, he discovers the town is home to two feuding clans, and everyone is only interested in making each other miserable. After trying and failing to encourage anyone in the town to send a single letter, he ends up at a solitary house on the far end of the island. Here he is terrified to meet Klaus, a huge woodsman with a house full of mysterious toys. He flees but drops a drawing he had been trying to convince a child to mail earlier. The drawing shows the sad child locked in a house, and Klaus comes to Jesper demanding that he secretly deliver a toy to the child.

Some slapstick misadventures later, the child somehow puts two and two together and tells his friends that if you write to Klaus the Woodsman, he'll leave you a toy. Jesper hears about this and encourages it, anything to get some actual letters moving around. Every day, he collects letters from the children, and every night he helps Klaus deliver a new round of toys. The children start attending school (the better to learn to write) and their happiness starts to rub off on the grownups. Soon most of the town is full of goodwill and kind gestures. The kids' gossip starts attributing Klaus with some familiar magical powers.

However, Klaus's store of toys is almost gone, and he implies that the giving will stop when he runs out. It's eventually revealed that the toys were made for the children he and his wife had planned but were not able to have before her death. Giving them away has brought Klaus happiness, but he isn't sure about creating new toys. After Jesper tries and fails to build a toy for a little Sami girl alone, Klaus is inspired to keep creating toys, now with Jesper's assistance. Jesper gets the idea for a blowout Christmas delivery, and the Sami clan comes down from the ice to help.

Meanwhile, the heads of the two feuding families are angry that no one is fighting their eternal war anymore. They find out about Jesper's 6,000 letter goal and create a bunch of fake letters to fulfill it, also notifying the Postmaster General. The General comes to the island on Christmas Eve, and his congratulations to Jesper reveal to his new friends that he was apparently lying to them.

I want to pause for a moment for one big logical thing that kept bothering me. Jesper's dad asked for 6,000 letters "stamped in his own hand," and clearly the fake letters weren't. But also, if most of the letters he arranged were from children in the town to Klaus, those letters never had to leave the island. Why are there bags of mail leaving on a boat before the clan heads get involved? How would the central post office keep track of internal island mail?

Anyway, of course Jesper doesn't actually leave, he comes back to help save Christmas. Or, actually, to complicate the perfectly good plan that Klaus and schoolteacher Alva already had.

At any rate, the Christmas delivery is completed, and the feud is broken for good with a romance between the clan heads' children. Klaus' reputation and operation grow over the years, until his death/ascension into the Force, but he somehow becomes magic at that point. The end was a little fuzzy.

The style of this movie is really interesting. It combines hand-drawn animation with computer lighting techniques to create a very unique look. It's pretty, but we could tell that the people making this had more skill with style than content. Most of the scenes are fine, individual little subplots work, humorous moments made us smile, but somehow the whole thing added up to less than the sum of its parts.

The underlying premise -- essentially what if "letters to Santa" brought Santa into existence -- seems like it should be interesting, but it just feels thematically hollow. The stated theme is that selfless acts beget more selfless acts, but that doesn't fully connect with the letters-equal-presents plot. The writing even tries to lampshade this, and Jesper comes up with the idea that only good children get presents, but we never felt that the movie earned any of its emotional moments.

A few specific nitpicks: The clan heads' kids are both the type of hugely obese and dumb characters that I futilely hoped were finally out of fashion. The schoolteacher love interest subplot is transparent from the first frame and not given any development.

It especially annoyed me that they laid all the groundwork for Santa to be a tradition that was passed down -- Klaus trained Jasper to make toys, Jasper already did most of the delivery, he settled permanently in the town -- only to have Klaus become magic at the last moment instead.

We really wanted to like it, but in the end, it was just... okay.