Friday 8 November 2019

"Klaus" (Guardian 08/11/19)

Klaus ***
Dir: Sergio Pablos. Animation with the voices of: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack. 96 mins. Cert: PG

The week’s less heralded Netflix release suggests the company intends to cover all our entertainment bases eventually: here’s an old-school PG-rated animation – encompassing some digital wizardry, but generally clinging to a nostalgic, hand-drawn look – with a late-blooming Yuletide theme.

The director is the seasoned Sergio Pablos, who contributed to Disney’s Hercules and Tarzan and co-wrote Illuminations’ Despicable Me, and now assimilates several of those titles’ most appealing aspects. If Klaus struggles to entirely justify the original part of its Netflix Original billing, it represents a half-decent attempt to revive the angular character design and irreverent humour Disney abandoned after the commercial failure of 2000’s underrated The Emperor’s New Groove.

The Mouse House would presumably have nixed the dismal Arctic location to which our jabbering postman hero Jesper (voice: Jason Schwartzman) is exiled. Introduced in a striking foggy monochrome – “You should see it in the spring,” mutters sarcastic ferryman Norm Macdonald, “That’s when those greys really pop” – Smeerensburg is no magical kingdom, rather a backwater frozen over amid a Hatfields-and-McCoys-style feud.

Jesper’s alliance with bearded, vaguely familiar toymaker Klaus (J.K. Simmons) helps warm everyone’s cockles, and initiates what is essentially a festive origin story, addressing the development of the flying sleigh much as Batman Begins mansplained the Batmobile. That’s a touch rote; stronger is Pablos’ vision of a society where children go overlooked while their guardians leap at one another’s throats. In certain Netflix territories, this may strike altogether too close to home.

Solid first and third acts can’t quite disguise a so-so midsection stuffed with shruggingly conventional story beats; if Netflix has its sights set on becoming a major animation player, it needs gagwriters capable of offsetting the saccharin and bolstering the visual accomplishments.

Still, there are idiosyncrasies between these poles, including an unusual narrative deployment of Mrs. Klaus, and a very Disneyish reach for inclusivity in the depiction of the indigenous Saami people – though perhaps someone should have thought to subtitle their dialogue. Any youngsters racing to see the film on its theatrical run this weekend will likely have forgotten all about it by the time the holidays actually roll around, but sporadic flickers of artistry help persuade us we’re watching something more than mere content.

Klaus opens in selected cinemas today before becoming available on Netflix from next Friday.

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