I’m a sucker for a good story of the power of kindness to overcome anything, and that’s what this is.
Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is the lazy son of the Postmaster of… I’m guessing Norway. Spoiled and perpetually unproductive, his father sends him to the island of Smeerensberg above the Arctic Circle with the condition that if he doesn’t process 6000 letters in a year, he will be kicked out of his family. Unfortunately, Smeerensberg is populated by two warring families, the Krums (led by Joan Cusack) and the Ellingboes (led by Will Sasso), who don’t send mail. The only other people in the town are the sarcastic and abusive ferryman (Norm Macdonald) and the embittered teacher-turned-fishmonger Alva (Rashida Jones). One day he runs into a woodcutter who lives far from the town named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) who has a massive collection of elaborate toys everywhere. Desperate to fill the letter quota, Jesper convinces Klaus to give toys to any of the kids that write him letters, and a legend is born.
I don’t know how to say this aside from just being honest: This movie got to me. It’s cheesy, it’s cliché, it has almost everything in it that we’ve already seen from all of the other “true story of Santa Claus” films, but… it worked on me. I just loved everything about it.
Part of it has to be attributed to the animation style. The bulk of the character design is put into the expressiveness of the characters, with huge, exaggerated eyes even by most animated standards (aside from Ducktales and any anime derived from the Uncle Scrooge style [which is most of them]). It helps that when emotional moments are to be found, the shot always takes an extra beat to let the characters process. Rather than just having an emotion, we see the feelings start to spring forth from the characters, letting us take that short journey with them. While the adults are done well, the main thing is how well they animate the innocent joy that children get from receiving simple kindness. One of the things that animation will always have an edge on live-action filmmaking is that they can always exaggerate expressions to sell a scene, and this film capitalizes on it perfectly.
Another part is that the story, while it absolutely is cliché, with beats being drawn directly from the guide to screenwriting, is played sincerely. There’s no irony about any of the story elements or any of the archetypes. Seriously, we have the selfish main character who learns the value of kindness, we have the love interest who tells them up front they’re never going to be together, we have the stoic old man who everyone is afraid of that ends up being kindly… This movie could just be called Stock Character: The Movie. But, throughout it, even though the characters are stock and the story is derivative, it still manages to grab you on an emotional level. Yes, you know what’s going to happen at any given part of the story, but when these elements are treated with depth and respect, we remember why these tropes became so used in the first place: They work.
That’s the main thing that this movie nails: Sincerity. One of the most repeated lines in the film is that “a true act of goodwill always sparks another.” That’s basically Klaus’s mantra, and it is shown to be true throughout the movie. Even though Jesper is selfish in his desires at the beginning, watching Klaus’s sincerity believably changes him for the better. It’s not all at once, though, nor even in a montage, because he’s still focused on what he wants. It’s only when he is forcibly shown how much joy he’s bringing to others, even if it is inadvertent, that he realizes that spreading happiness is a reward far greater than his own hedonism. While this message would normally ring hollow, it instead comes off as just as powerful as that mantra should be. One small act begets another, which eventually makes the world a better place. All it takes is a little effort.
It also helps that, in a rarity for this kind of film, nothing in the movie is explicitly magical. Quite the opposite: everything from the Santa Mythos is shown to be derived from mundane misunderstandings that the children have about Klaus. For example, the children see Klaus and Jesper wreck a cart pulled by reindeer, but they misinterpret it as the reindeer flying and landing. Additionally, rather than just being the unflinching paragon of goodwill that Santa usually represents, Klaus is given a more tragic and realistic backstory for why he does what he does. He’s not trying to just do good for the sake of good, although he does believe in it, he’s doing it in memory of someone else. Much as we have idealized Santa, Santa himself was acting based on his ideal vision of another.
I also have to give credit to the score. Music is always a part of making sure that the audience is experiencing the full emotions of a scene, and this film uses it perfectly.
Overall, I know I’m a sucker, but I love this movie. Everything about it is hopeful and stands for the idea that, no matter how bitter or divided we are, one day we can all come together. It just takes effort and caring.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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