He’s costumed, he soars, he rescues kids from joylessness, and now like any other superhero he’s got an origin story, thanks to the animated film “Klaus,” a serviceably sprightly mix of attitude and altruism that purports to explain how children every Christmas came to eagerly await the wrapped bounty from a kind, portly figure in a red suit.
Though hardly likely to wedge its way into a place of permanence among a family’s annual must-see roster of Rankin/Bass stop-motion classics and a bald-headed comic strip kid’s jazz-scored lament, animation veteran Sergio Pablos’ directorial debut boasts its own nod to tradition — a reliance on hand-drawn animation. Whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, “Klaus” and its nostalgia-triggering graphic sensibility will at least remind you that we all once held faith in the artisanal pizzazz of a precomputer-rendered world.
Our first stop in this centuries-ago tale is a mountainously picturesque postal academy where pampered cadet and indifferent scion Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) purposefully underperforms until he’s punished by his Postmaster General dad (Sam McMurray) by getting sent to the bleak Arctic island of Smeerensburg to ensure 6,000 letters are processed within the year or he’ll be cut off as an heir.
Delivered there by a cynical boatman (Norm Macdonald), what Jesper finds beyond mere wintry desolation is an inhospitable village caught up in a longstanding factional feud that has even the children preferring tribalism and brattiness to neighborly communication. Even the town’s schoolteacher Alva (Rashida Jones), devoid of willing students, has been reduced to selling fish — and hacking many of them angrily for our benefit — in order to save enough money to escape.
Jesper’s efforts promoting the mail service prove fruitless until one lonely boy’s sad drawing (of a kid behind bars) makes its way to the even lonelier home of mysterious, hulking woodsman Klaus (J.K. Simmons), whose charitable response is to have Jesper deliver the child one of his handmade toys. When this act of kindness gets out to the other children, Jesper, sensing an opportunity in this tiny thaw, turns it into a town-wide campaign: write a letter to the toymaker, get a toy. Don’t know how to write? See the schoolteacher.
And with that, Pablos and screenwriters Jim Mahoney and Zach Lewis take delight in revealing the sometimes amusing back story to all the elements of the Santa myth, from the flying sled to his eventual helpers, while Pablos’ animators deploy plenty of stylish visuals — augmented here and there by 3-D CGI touches — to transform a gray village frozen by resentment into an old-world storybook wonderland awakened by goodness.
The big hitch is that “Klaus” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny with its paper-thin characters, starting with the weakly sassy Jesper — a not terribly compelling redemption case or audience surrogate for this morality fable — and only occasionally enlivened by Joan Cusack’s deliciously malevolent tone as one clan’s nasty matriarch. (Will Sasso voices the other feuding family head.) As admirable as it is that “Klaus” in the overall isn’t a sugar-rush cartoon fix of wisecracks and mayhem, it’s also too lazily reliant on insults and insolence as its go-to mode for comedy.
But what does work is the snowy, hilly luster of this bygone-era fairy tale environment, and the seasonal soul the filmmakers have tucked inside their invented history about children’s yearly haul. That heart of charity and communication is best exemplified in “Klaus” via the character of Margú (Neda Magrethe Labba), a sweet-faced, innocent indigenous girl in colorful clothing, whose bubbly Sámi-speaking chatter Jesper and Alva initially don’t understand, and whose dialogue is never translated for us. But her friendly presence is meant to remind us — and impart on impressionable young minds — that in the big nice/naughty world, often the only thing that’s ever truly foreign about others is the language. Until even that isn’t.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 8, iPic Westwood; available Nov. 15 on Netflix