Like a stranger popping down the chimney, “Klaus” surprised prognosticators with an Oscar nomination. The Little Santa Origin Story That Could may be on Netflix (the streaming giant’s first original animated feature) and come from the creator of the billion-dollar “Despicable Me” franchise, but it retains a distinctly indie feeling.
“It’s a Christmas film and that’s already a problem,” says director and co-writer Sergio Pablos. “The marketplace is so crowded that most studios wouldn’t even consider it. We made it with hand-drawn animation. There hasn’t been a successful 2-D film in theaters for a long time now.
“But we strongly believed we made the right choices for the story, and to see that validated by the members of the academy was really emotional. The predictions were not showing ‘Klaus’ as a contender, so our expectations were pretty low. You can see our reactions in that video online,” he said of a now-viral YouTube clip.
Following years as an animator at Disney, Pablos sold the “Despicable Me” concept to Universal and “Smallfoot” to Warner Animation Group. “Klaus” is his debut as director; it’s also the first feature for Sergio Pablos Animation Studios in Madrid. That independence, which he says Netflix strongly encouraged, led to some of “Klaus’” bold choices — especially tonally. Because while it’s a Christmas movie for families, it’s a Santa Claus origin story that takes inspiration from, of all things, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.”
“We knew there were corny versions of this — and we’ve seen plenty of corny versions of Batman. We wanted to make a grounded version that people today could get behind,” as Nolan famously did with the first of his Dark Knight movies. “So when it comes to the Santa Claus traditions, how do I come up with realistic, sometimes even cynical versions of that? Because maybe they did not start from the urge to do good deeds. Maybe it was a selfish person going through the motions to serve his own interests.”
Toward that end, the eventual Santa isn’t even the lead. That would be a privileged jerk named Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) forced to serve as an ignored postman in a wintry hellscape: the remote island town of Smeerensburg. There’s a long-running (and violent) feud between halves of the populace. To succeed and thus flee the town and claim his inheritance, Jesper manipulates a reclusive woodsman (voiced by J.K. Simmons) into giving his handmade toys to kids who request them via letters. There are some painfully earned emotional scenes, and Smeerensburg is hilariously nightmarish — it’s not exactly the tones one expects of a Santa movie for kids.
“I felt that’s where the comedy and the charm fell,” says Pablos. “If we were to end up with the perfect Christmas town, we had to start as far to the opposite of that, to the point of being ludicrous, as we could.”
Peppered throughout are seeds of Santa traditions, such as how he ended up using reindeer, why bad kids get coal in their stockings and how a potential catastrophe turned into one of the instantly recognizable images in Santa lore.
“The flying sleigh was there from the first treatment. But there were things like how the piece of coal started; that was a revelation,” said Pablos.
“I often said to my crew, ‘You’re making a new “Star Wars” film.’ It’s a lot of the same approach Disney would take with fan service. … You’re letting them in on the joke.”
Perhaps the most important of the traditions, though — the “nice” list — is the heart of “Klaus.” And it goes well beyond being “good” in order to get toys; it speaks to lessons many parents want their kids to learn.
“If you build your story around an idea you believe in — ‘Kindness is contagious’ — you have to deliver. There’s a way of doing it right and there’s a way of doing it very corny and very preachy,” Pablos explained. “But when we were writing, of course, our target audience is people who believe in Santa, so how do we navigate that? But I often think we don’t give audiences enough credit. [Instead of exposition] I want people to get it from what they’re watching; put two and two together.
“One thing we were paying attention to is this movie has to work, no matter what your set of beliefs is. It has to work for religious people, for nonreligious people. People have their own ideas with Santa Claus. So we tried to say, ‘No matter what you believe, this still holds true.’ ”
Among the rewards, Pablos got his own bag of letters to cherish.
“At one of the first screenings, I was so worried about how the little ones were going to get it, so I read their written reactions — the studio gave me a compendium of all the little cards they filled out, and I got really emotional. I kept those. There was a kid who wrote nothing but a large, misspelled ‘Awesome.’ ”
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