If I told you there was an animated film about the origins of the Santa Claus mythology would you picture something treacly and gushy? Granted, nothing involving Christmas can escape heavy sentimentality and requisite story beats, but Klaus counterbalances the sweet with the sour. Of course, the sour here is represented by a delightfully anarchic humor that gives a blood feud a slapstick edge.
I suppose it helps Klaus has a skewed, skeptical look at traditions and history. The feuding families apparently are more than willing to set aside their lust for violence when presented with a welcome alternative. Not Will Sasso and Joan Cusack’s heads of their respective families who want to keep the traditions alive, but they’re presented as villainous and curmudgeonly stunted characters. Tethering yourself to the past and refusing to mature beyond it is an impediment to progress and happiness is the film’s main argument and moral.
The world of Klaus is beautiful and charming to behold. The lovingly detailed hand-drawn animation is a reminder of a style that is depressingly hard to come by in the modern age. There’s real buoyancy and life in the geometric designs between the rounded body types and angularity of their dwellings.
It's a reminder of the best of the Disney Renaissance in the ways that quick jokes like creepy tots turning a snowman into a stabbing victim with carrots are hidden away in warmly textured watercolor-like backgrounds. There are no big musical moments, but there’s plenty of gorgeous visual delights to entrance the eye while a pleasing magical realism slowly emerges within the narrative.
If the major beats sound like a Hatfields and McCoys long-standing feud, where exactly does Santa Claus play a role in all of this? On the outer edges of the town (and the narrative) lives Klaus, a man with the body of a brute but possessing a wounded soul and golden heart. The major constructions of the myth – reindeer, flying sleighs, chimneys and stockings – are built by misunderstandings and a game of telephone with the town’s children. Klaus also can commune with his dead wife by ‘listening’ to gusts of snow and goes from literal man to figurative icon by the film’s end.
This transference from literal (if cartoonish) reality to magical realism is quiet and built slowly. Much of Klaus is like that in the ways it entertains and charms before disarming you with a possibility that anything could happen. It is this spirit of the traditional and the modern in conflict and conversation that powers Klaus through to a touching ending. This was one of the delights of 2019 that I didn’t see coming.