‘Klaus’ Film Review: Animated Santa Claus Origin Story Nails the Magic Better than the Comedy

If I’ve learned anything as a Christmas-movie historian, it’s that it’s very easy to get Santa Claus origin stories wrong. Lean too hard into the explanations, and you strip away the wonder. Focus too much on whether or not people should believe in Santa, and you paint yourself into a quasi-theological corner.

The animated “Klaus” — opening in theaters before its upcoming Netflix debut — skillfully avoids both of these traps, crafting a how-it-all-began saga with storybook visuals and genuine bursts of real feeling. It’s far more successful with holiday magic than it is with character-based comedy, but that’s not enough of a flaw to keep young audiences (and their parents) from potentially turning this feature into a cherished annual tradition.

Despite the title, “Klaus” isn’t based on the popular graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Dan Mora — although with a postman and a schoolteacher among its principal characters, it’s hard not to imagine writers Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney (working from a story by director Sergio Pablos, an animation veteran) dipping into Rankin-Bass’ 1970 TV classic “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” for inspiration.

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We begin with spoiled young Jesper (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) slumming his way through the Royal Postman Academy, making no effort whatsoever since he assumes that his father, the Postmaster General (Sam McMurray), will continue to coddle him. But dad has other plans, shipping Jesper off to the remote island village of Smeerensburg; if Jesper doesn’t process 6,000 letters in his first year there, he will be forever cut off from the family fortune.

Taken to the island by grumpy boatman Mogens (Norm Macdonald), Jesper finds himself in a town divided by a generations-old feud between the Krums (led by a matriarch played by Joan Cusack) and the Ellingboes (whose patriarch is voiced by Will Sasso). Because of the fighting, no one sends any mail, and local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), bereft of students, has taken to working as a fishmonger to raise the money to get out of town.

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