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KLAUS: Yeah, this one should have taken the Best Animated Oscar

The word “original” is a good place to start in describing “Klaus.”

In the first place, this wonderful new animated movie is a Netflix original; as with “The Irishman,” the media giant gave this film limited theatrical release in hopes that it would qualify for a well-deserved Oscar.

The plotline also feels unique; and that’s because “Klaus” is, ahem, an origin story … about Santa Claus!

To be perfectly honest, there are other narratives in this tradition, the best known of which may be L. Frank Baum’s “Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” (1902). But I can’t think of any other versions that are so clever, so charming, so lovely and so … well, original.

Jason Schwartzman voices Jesper Johanssen, a conceited and lazy youth whose postmaster father decides to kick-start the boy’s career by sending him off to start a branch on the remote northern island of Smeerensberg. (Incidentally, Smeerenberg -- spelled a bit differently -- is an actual place in Norway; and the Sami, who come up later in the film, are likewise a real Scandinavian race.)

As for Jesper: Instead of a bustling village ready to start posting countless letters, he finds “the home of the world’s finest feuds” -- where two opposing clans have hated and warred with each other for centuries.

Much of the movie’s delight involves watching this oddball situation slowly morph into an explanation of traditions associated with St. Nick. Naturally, this begins with writing letters to the omniscient toy-maker -- but it also includes the gifts, the reindeer, the flying sleigh, the elves, the chimney, the stockings, the occasional coal, the worldwide delivery and of course, the naughty list.

The best thing about all this is that it never feels forced, but rather emerges organically from the story of a selfish youth who learns to care, an old man with a mysterious past, a town full of hate, kids who need love, a babbling little cutie from another village and a local teacher who has given up trying to do school in this environment.

Yet for all its originality, the movie is also intensely traditional -- and not merely in the way it fleshes out the long-standing Santa Claus myth.

For one thing, it’s drawn by hand -- and boy is it gorgeous, with pleasantly exaggerated shapes and a handful of visual cues paying homage to the original “Grinch.”

More important, the movie takes its time; avoiding bathroom humor and frantic action, it focuses instead on a very old-fashioned moral: As the old man puts it, “A true selfless act always sparks another.”

Handsome, smart, inspiring and very seasonal indeed, “Klaus” -- pronounced like “mouse” -- is an instant holiday classic. It should go right up on the shelf next to “Elf,” “Home Alone” and “Christmas Carol.”

* * * 1/2 (out of four)


directed by Sergio Pablos

Run time: 96 min.

Rated PG for mild rude humor and action

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