Video Scorecard #22: Oscar Quest 2020 Animated Extra Credit

Klaus!

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor facing off against Disney and DreamWorks films for an Academy Award…

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s more like a newsletter in which I’ve jotted down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home. As usual I’ve been preoccupied with my annual bout of Oscar-mania to the consternation of MCC readers who show up here for any other reasons.(I promise we have a road trip miniseries coming soon, with some light travel, history, and a tribute to one astronaut. Honest!

Before tonight’s big Academy Awards ceremony on ABC, there’s one last category in which I managed to catch all the entrants thanks to the wonder of today’s sometimes generous streaming services. Thus we present in brief the three nominees for Best Animated Feature that I didn’t see in theaters:

* Klaus (Netflix): Honestly, what adult watches an animated Christmas film when they no longer have small children and they’re painfully aware 99% of all direct-to-video Christmas films are even more unwatchable than the 4,000 new live-action Christmas films that stampede onto basic cable every year? Determined to defy those odds, Despicable Me creator Sergio Pablos assembled a top team of fellow former Disney animators to revel in the glories of 2-D animation in this deft reimagining of the origin of Santa Claus, which at first refuses to behave like a Christmas movie until the tropes — some bald-faced, some subverted — sneakily rise to the surface and unite like a secret Voltron that eventually resembles an energized rendition of the original worldwide legend.

Some narrative sleight-of-hand shifts our gaze toward a different main character, a spoiled adult brat named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) born into a family of mail carriers so regimented that they have their own West Point-style training academy. When Jesper is on the verge of flunking out, his dad instead pulls strings to get him the job anyway but, rather than assigning somewhere cushy like a Florida county full of golf courses, decides only a hard-knock life can change Jesper’s attitude. Thus he’s assigned to the northernmost post office possible in an icy, foreboding town called Smeerensburg. It’s a terrible, horrible, no-good place — the entire citizenry is engaged in eternal feuds with each other, spending every waking moment trying to murder their designated enemies in an environment that’s like the Hatfields and McCoys by way of the Addams Family. No one likes each other, no one bothers with school, and no one reads or writes…which means no one sends mail. And Jesper can’t come home until and unless mail volume reaches a ridiculously unattainable goal. But how can he do that in a land where everyone is so hostile and single-minded, they don’t even have magazine subscriptions or Amazon accounts? If you can imagine such a nightmarish underworld.

Jesper despairs until a series of stressful coincidences sends him stumbling into the path of a fat, kindly, bitter hermit named Klaus (JK Simmons, quieter than usual) who has a hobby of lining his shelves with countless handmade toys. He has no storefront and no family of his own, but he keeps making toys seemingly for himself. Meanwhile, the hostile delinquents down in Smeerensburg have no toys because no one’s ever taught them how to “play”, as opposed to warring on each other night and day. Jesper concocts a clever way to connect the two, yadda yadda yadda, eventually we get the secret origin of Why Kids Write Letters to Santa.

The small but sturdy cast also includes Joan Cusack (a former Addams Family villain) and MADtv alum Will Sasso as the heads of the two biggest Smeerensburg families who have a vested interest in perpetuating a society of divisive hate; Rashida Jones (Parks & Rec) as a fish butcher who buried her schoolteacher dreams long ago; and former SNLer Norm MacDonald as…well, Norm MacDonald with a boat. Various aspects of the Santa mythos are touched upon and slyly turned on their heads in varying manners, often in myth-vs.-reality contrasts amusing in themselves (impossible flying sleigh? there’s a story behind that). All of this could’ve made for a decent Henry Selick film, but the 2-D animation pros enjoy the medium’s return to form and embellish the jazzy linework with lovingly rendered lighting and shadows that bring untold depths to so much dark comedy and the holiday brightness that come alive by the end of the tale once the holiday itself is more or less invented. At first it’s an excuse to unload toys; later it’s a means of underpinning a moral structure within a society that had none.

It’s rare for anything remotely Christmas-adjacent to show up on awards lists, but Klaus is a rare exception and a delightful anomaly that I wish I’d known to catch during the holidays. It’s a Netflix Original, and possibly their first such offering worth of being a perennial keeper.

Missing Link!

I know that feeling when you’re glimpsing paradise but haven’t yet realized your tour guide thinks you’re stupid. It’s hard out here for a yokel.

* Missing Link (Hulu): Not the first time I’ve regretting bypassing a Laika feature in its theatrical run. Hugh Jackman is suitably charming as a shallow big-game hunter who wants to impress other, even shallower hunters by tracking down one of man’s most elusive quarries: Sasquatch himself. That seemingly impossible quest is simplified when Sasquatch himself (perfectly chosen Zach Galifianakis) sends him a letter because he needs his help. As an outsider who’s tired of being alone, Sasquatch needs an experienced explorer to lead him to others of his kind, where he hopes to fit in and no longer live alone. Thus the duo set off to Asia in search of his distant cousins the Yeti. The road is long and hard and beset upon by yet another hunter (Timothy Olyphant), but soon they’re joined by Zoe Saldana as a stern, no-nonsense widow who convinces herself it’s time to leave the house in search of new purpose, or at least adventure.

As with other Laika releases (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings), the story is unpredictable and the happy ending is not always where we expect it. The biggest surprise comes from the Yeti themselves (led by a pompous Emma Thompson), who teach our friendly, whimsical, occasionally mixed-up Sasquatch and Jackman’s preening hunter — still bucking for that exclusive country-club membership — that sometimes it isn’t easy to join up with others of your own kind. Sometimes people you assume are just like you aren’t actually like you at all. Just because you share some labels doesn’t mean you share the same sensibilities or virtues. Sometimes, others of your own kind really suck and you need to stop and reconsider what kind of “own kind” you really want to be.

That’s a tough lesson for kids to swallow, but one that any ostracized adult can recognize deep down. Though some of the sillier slapstick and literal-minded dad-jokes are aimed more at kids, Laika of course makes it look cool for all ages and sets up what might be my favorite Zach Galifianakis role to date. There’s something about his later, defiant shout of “YOUR UTOPIA SUCKS!” at his snobby peers that makes me think I need someone to print that on a button I can wear to parties.

I Lost My Body!

As you’d expect, a film about an amputated limb is rather dark, definitely not lighter fare.

* I Lost My Hand (Netflix): This year’s lone foreign contender is a French fable that follows two narrative tracks. One is about a beleaguered pizza delivery kid who falls in love with a customer’s voice and decides to insert himself into her life through creepy stalker techniques that I’m supposed to think are endearing but that ultimately didn’t impress the young lady or me. The other, far more fascinating plot follows the journey of the kid’s severed hand. The cause of amputation is a mystery at first, as is the cause of its surprise sentience as it arises from its bloody puddle, begins searching for its rightful owner, and tangles with a series of suspenseful obstacles and opponents that include hungry rats and a feisty pigeon whose showdown ends brutally.

Truth be known, I’d’ve been far happier if the film had merely been 75 minutes of the severed hand. It’s disturbing and not for kids, but for adults it’s like Thing from The Addams Family meets Homeward Bound, or a remake of Oliver Stone’s The Hand except this time the hand is a hero. Its owner, meanwhile, is a lying conniver too willing to compromise ethics for the sake of curing his loneliness, whose eventual exposure I cheered and whose symbolic final act of release rang hollow. I didn’t learn till after the fact that there’s a dubbed version that features recognizable actors (Dev Patel! George Wendt!), but I watched the subtitled version and I’m not sure switching would’ve made a difference.

…and for the sake of completeness for those just joining us, the other two nominees were previously seen in theaters and reprised from here like so:

* Toy Story 4: The series was OVER. The trilogy was COMPLETE. The finale with Bonnie was PERFECT. But no, Pixar had to yank out the stitches on that beautiful closure and march Bonnie’s toys through the motions of yet another toys-on-the-run escapade that benches half its all-stars, loses track of its own rules, manufactures one needless chase too many, and drops one of its decent, nonwhite human characters into a disturbingly harrowing police encounter — blithely pretending such a scene evokes absolutely no alarming real-world relevance — all so Sheriff Woody can ride off into the sunset AGAIN, but this time literally instead of metaphorically. We were FINE with “metaphorically”.

* How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: “I love what a difference Roger Deakins made in the cinematography!” is not a thing you’re supposed to be thinking while watching animated films. Gloriously painted panoramas and dashing flights of dragon fancy are a feast for the eyes, but they’re in support of a just-okay fantasy script, which is quite a comedown from the original Train Your Dragon, still one of my all-time favorite DreamWorks Animated films. The end of the series, in which we learn why we never see dragons around today, is all the more frustrating because the screenplay’s ultimate answer of “humanity is too evil to deserve them” is about as satisfying as “because we said so.” Frankly, it makes the dragons look weak.

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