What if everything great about Santa Claus came about because of the actions of the most selfish character imaginable?
That’s the origin story director Sergio Pablos explores in “Klaus,” Netflix’s first original animated feature (which hits the streaming service today, after its limited Oscar-qualifying theatrical run).
The film follows Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), the spoiled and lazy son of a postmaster who is sent to open a post office on a remote Arctic island with the threat of being cut off from the family fortune. Unfortunately for Jesper, the town’s feuding locals have no intention of sending one another any mail.
Jesper eventually befriends a reclusive carpenter named Klaus (J.K. Simmons), whose handmade toys become a part of the postman’s plan to get back home to his life of luxury.
But a fresh take on Santa’s origin story is not the only thing that makes “Klaus” unique: It’s also in 2D. At a time when most studios would run from the old-school animation format, Netflix ran toward it — enthusiastic about the material’s holiday appeal.
“What we found was that the fact that it was 2D and the fact that it was a Christmas movie was a deterrent for a lot of companies that said they didn’t want to compete around Christmas with all the other films,” said Pablos. “Netflix was the absolute exception to that. Not only were they OK with it, they were actually looking for Christmas content at the time.”
Netflix’s vice president of original animation, Melissa Cobb, affirmed that “the idea of a Christmas classic that people could enjoy year after year on Netflix” was part of the project’s appeal.
“As we look at the animated feature space in general, we’re looking for stories that are timeless, that have strong universal themes [and] really strong emotions,” said Cobb. “I think about it from the standpoint of really wanting to build out a library of content that people can enjoy over and over again.”
As a licensing deal with Disney — which brought animated hits including “Moana” and “Zootopia” to Netflix with limited windows — nears its end, Netflix is indeed bulking up its animation library. On Wednesday, the streamer announced a multiyear deal with Nickelodeon for new original animated features and series based on the network’s existing shows as well as new projects.
Previously announced Netflix original animated features on the horizon include the dark comedy “The Willoughbys”; Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion “Pinocchio”; “Jacob and the Sea Beast” from “Moana” and “Big Hero 6” co-director Chris Williams; and “Wendell and Wild” from “Coraline” writer-director Henry Selick.
As with these other creators, Cobb said Pablos’ passion for the film’s story was an important factor for Netflix. “Klaus” marks the directorial debut for the Spanish animator, who is perhaps best known for creating “Despicable Me.” And it’s a movie that’s been close to 10 years in the making.
Inspired by the spate of cinematic origin stories at the time, including “Batman Begins” and “Hannibal Rising,” Pablos sought out an established character whose background he could expand on. Although he initially dismissed Santa as a subject, the filmmaker said he kept coming back to him. He realized that despite various historical and religious back stories, “There’s no widely accepted canon origin story for Santa.”
Pablos eventually considered a story in which Santa wasn’t even the main character, which led him to wonder: “What if Santa is a symbol for altruism and generosity, and [there is] a character who needs to learn that lesson?”
Part of the charm of “Klaus” is an artistic style that resembles a hand-drawn storybook in motion. This was a feat made possible by Pablos and his team, who worked to develop tools that resolved some of traditional animation’s technical problems.
“Characters always felt like they were kind of stuck on top of the backgrounds” in traditional animation, said Pablos, who also worked on Disney films including “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Hercules,” “Tarzan” and “Treasure Planet.”
“The backgrounds were done in a painterly style, and the characters could not be done the same way, so they never quite matched.”
New tools addressed this integration issue as well as past problems with lighting to help capture the charm of human imperfection, something that was lost with the move to the now-industry-standard 3D CGI.
When 3D CGI films came on the scene, Pablos “never really thought that it would just replace traditional [animation].
“I thought there was a place for both, and I never bought into the reasons why we decided to abandon it,” said Pablos. He believed 2D could still be viable, “not for any film, but for the right story that benefits from that medium.”
His sensible approach is evident in “Klaus,” which is primarily hand-drawn but used CGI when practical, such as with vehicles and locations that needed free-flowing camera shots. Even the reindeer are CGI at times (though it’s meant to be undetectable).
Pablos is similarly pragmatic on his thoughts regarding streaming vs. theater when it comes to his films. As a person who “fell in love with cinema at the cinema,” he said it took him a bit of time to get used to the idea that “Klaus” would be a film mostly viewed by people at their homes.
“But then I actually came around to the idea that maybe the perfect way to watch a film like ‘Klaus’ is to sit at home with your family, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa,” said Pablos.
It’s a sentiment that echoes Netflix’s philosophy in differentiating its approach to animated features versus animated series.
“We generally look at animated features as entertainment for the whole family to enjoy together,” said Cobb. “We really think about that family unit, whether that’s parents and their kids or extended family. That very shared experience is something we think a lot about in the feature space.”
For animated series, on the other hand, “we sometimes are looking for that broad, shared experience, and sometimes we’re looking for more individual experiences, like something that an 8-year-old kid is just going to love to death,” said Cobb.
She also said the company’s goal is to give creators some latitude in pursuing their artistic vision rather than imposing a house style or aesthetic.
For Cobb, the animated features space is exciting due to the craft of animation as well as the idea of introducing timeless classics that maintain audience appeal over decades. She points out the global reach and accessibility that appears unique to animation — important factors as Netflix serves a worldwide customer base.
“Audiences are willing to kind of step into worlds and things that might not be their day-to-day lives when they’re animated, whether that’s a different culture that you’re being immersed in, or a different reality,” said Cobb. “Audiences — not just kids, but kids and adults — are willing to engage the fantasy side of their brain really quickly when you’re in animation, and that’s a lot of fun.”