Though I’m no deep expert, I still feel comfortable saying that it’s very easy to get a Santa Claus origin story 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. Klaus, Netflix’s first animated film, 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 (or their parents) from potentially turning this movie into a cherish annual tradition. Despite the title, Klaus isn’t based on the popular graphic novel, but the movie does include a postman and a schoolteacher among its principal characters. Making it hard not to imagine that writers Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney didn’t dip into Rankin and Bass’ 1970 TV classic Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town for some inspiration.
It all begins 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 his dad has other plans, as he ships Jesper off to the remote island village of Smeerensburg; where if Jesper doesn’t process six-thousand 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 and the Ellingboes. Because of the fighting, no one sends any mail, and local teacher Alva (Rashida Jones), deprived of students, has taken to working as a fishmonger to raise the money to get out of town. One day when Jesper accidentally delivers a child’s drawing to loner Klaus (J.K. Simmons), the woodsman recruits Jesper to help him bring the boy a hand-crafted toy from Klaus’ large collection. This incident incites Jesper to action: if he can get the children to write letters to Klaus for toys, he can hit his quota. And when some kids tell the postman they can’t write, he encourages them to attend Alva’s classes. The naughty list is born when a kid who harasses Jesper gets coal in his stocking instead of a gift. And as the Santa Claus mythology is born, the small town citizen’s start with some resistance, to get along with each other.
Klaus works best when it’s having fun with that mythos and when we see the impact that Klaus’ generosity and Jesper’s hard work has on the feuding populace of Smeerensburg. Director Sergio Pablos and his team also provide maybe the film’s strongest quality: the visuals. The animation itself (which is a meld of hand-drawn and CG) is vivid in its colors and texture, with the character design reminiscent of vintage illustrations: Klaus, Jesper and Alva read as more realistic, while the Krums and Ellingboes get more comically caricatured treatment, and the Sámi people (also known as Laplanders), who assist Klaus in his workshop, appear both sweet and stately (all while speaking their own, never-translated language). Even if Jesper’s character arc reads like that of many not-too-shabby Hallmark Channel heroines — city slicker comes to small town with selfish intent, winds up falling for the homespun townspeople — Klaus finds places for the sentimentality to work just right. As we learn just why Klaus has all those toys sitting around, or we see a dejected Jesper find hope from a bright-eyed young Sámi girl named Margú (Neda M. Ladda), the film gives us those heart-tugs that so many want out of their Christmas entertainment. But to get there, you have to get through some hiccups along the way. But getting through those early, clunky scenes ends up being worthwhile once you get to the lovely, soaring second and third acts. Visually sumptuous while still packing its clichés, Klaus has enough moments of genuine feeling and holiday magic for the possibility of it becoming a holiday classic.
Adopt a Highway
Ethan Hawke is seemingly a master at the art of playing the unassuming everyman battling life’s greatest challenges. His latest great performance is found in writer-director Logan Marshall-Green’s meandering directorial debut, Adopt a Highway, in which Hawke stars as an ex-con who’s finally gained his freedom after serving a twenty-one-year jail sentence. That ex-con is named Russell Millings, and he’s experiencing a lot of change right now. He’s got a new job at a restaurant, he’s just discovered the wonderful invention of the World Wide Web and he’s sleeping in a normal bed for the first time in decades. It’s an awkward and joyous time for him, but in many ways, Russell has always been a happy man who keep finding himself in messed up situations and making the wrong decisions. Even before the story begins to really unfold, Hawke is giving us a fully formed character worthy of empathy, if only because he went to jail on account of an offense that is now on its way to being legalized (he was arrested with an ounce of Marijuana with an intent to distribute). Russell’s misfortunes are just a way of life for him and what he tries his hardest to keep in the past. Just to go to work and go home. That’s all he wants and does. But when he discovers a baby in the dumpster behind the restaurant one night, one small choice pivots his life in a whole new direction (along with a chain of odd plot choices).
Despite the fact that he’s on parole, Russell decides to take in the baby, even though he knows nothing about babies or baby food or baby safety (which is painfully obvious right away). All he has is the duffel bag that he found her in and a note that reads, “Her name was Ella.” But, whether it was driven by his loneliness or a need to have a sense of adult responsibly, Russell takes care of Ella for a few days, becoming the first real friend he’s had in years, until she falls off his bed and bumps her head and he has to take her to the hospital. And things only change from there, soon triggering an unfocused, and at times unbelievable, series of events involving Russell deciding to risk consequences and go back to Wyoming to reconnect with who he was prior to prison. Hawke manages to make it interesting to watch a wilted man who can go from joy to despair to numbness within a few short moments. Russell is free yet remains tethered to a system that is ready to imprison him at any moment. He wants to experience life but doesn’t’ really know what that means or how to navigate it.
At its core, Adopt a Highway is about choices; the choices that the justice system makes and Russell’s own — both good and bad. Freedom is supposed to beget choice, but once Russell is released from prison and met with numerous choices, he finds himself at the risk of being incarcerated once again. Marshall-Green makes the inspired decision to pivot from that potentially grim narrative that so many characters have fallen prey to before, and kind of rambles until the end of the film. But perhaps that’s the point: Russell is still trying to figure out who he is now and what choices he wants to make moving forward. But, maybe the film might benefit from a bit more concision and development. Marshall-Green’s directorial debut is an intriguing story that centers on a flawed protagonist, and maybe with more polishing in the second half of the film it could have really flew. Bringing its own fablistic qualities, Adopt a Highway contains a weighted, vulnerable Ethan Hawke performance that finds glimmers of pure tenderness throughout, it’s just that most everything that surrounds him lacks concision and often struggles finding a deep core of emotional truths.