For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
I should start by saying that my media impact qualifications may not quite extend to me properly evaluating an animated children’s movie. Most of my research involves the study of adults and requires some level of perceived realism (how realistic a story seems to its audience). An animated film cuts down considerably on the realism for adults, but who’s to say this lessens its impact on children? I’m definitely going to take my research in the direction of answering that question at some point, but until then, I will just do my best with what I currently understand.
This 2019 animated, English-speaking Spanish film tells an alternate origin story of Santa Claus. Klaus begins with Jesper, the spoiled son of the Royal Postmaster General of a nondescript Scandinavian-esque country, intentionally failing out of postman training. Jesper’s father sends him to a small island town at the very, very northern end of the country, where Jesper is expected to spend one year delivering at least 6000 letters. This punishment for Jesper’s affluenza does fall in line with an old trope of parents forcing their spoiled or otherwise uncontrollable children to do extremely difficult work for the sake of “teaching” or “helping” them. While it does work for Jesper, this particular trope is not always helpful in reality. Using backbreaking work to help someone with, say, depression or an addiction could actually have the opposite effect. It’s a small point for this film, but one that may be worth considering for the entertainment industry as a whole.
The particular animation style chosen depicts all humans as being either extremely skinny or extremely hefty. While I understand it’s a stylistic choice, there are some potential problems here. Again, I am not particularly poised to critique animation styles, and there may be very specific reasons why this style is popular for children’s animated programs. However, this dichotomous choice could add to the dichotomous thinking in children between small/large, but also male/female, pretty/ugly, good/bad, etc. Without offering a spectrum of human bodies, I’m concerned this may feed into the dichotomous, unhealthy mindset that there is only one “good” type of body and all other types are “bad.”
I applaud the film for choosing one male and one female as the primary antagonist characters. Mrs. Tammy Krum (voiced by the fabulous Joan Cusack) heads the Krum clan, while Mr. Aksel Ellingboe (Will Sasso) leads the Ellingboes. Their two children, Pumpkin Krum (voiced by the film’s writer and director, Sergio Pablos) and the Ellingboe boy (Evan Agos) end up together at the end of the film, Pumpkin declaring him “mine” after the Ellingboe boy saves her. Yet, at the beginning of the film, the entire town sides with one clan or the other, fighting constantly and playing cruel pranks on another daily. By the end, the marriage of the Krum and Ellingboe children almost seems inevitable, pulling together these two opposites (yes, another dichotomy).
Jesper and his new friend Klaus, a toymaker and woodsman who lives just outside the outskirts of town, bring about this change through the children of Smeerensburg. The implicit messages that most deeply permeate the movie are that social change is often generational, and it must begin with the youth of society. The wedding of the Krum and Ellingboe children at the end of the film perfectly captures the implicit message of generational change. Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe still clearly long for their feud, but their children have given it up. While the in-laws will likely never get along, the next generation will merely grow up knowing their grandparents don’t spend a lot of time together.
Pushing this change through children’s acts of kindness and generosity has a two-fold effect. First, it points out that children accept change far more easily than adults. Children must learn to hate and feud, while we are all born knowing the intimacy of depending upon someone. While I don’t personally buy into the bribery method of teaching children kindness, the film effectively establishes the myth of Santa’s Naughty or Nice List encouraging children to be dutiful and charitable. This charity feeds into the explicit message of the film that, “A true act of selflessness always sparks another.”
This explicit message also ties in nicely with another implicit message exhibited through Jesper’s character development. In bringing Klaus’ toys to the children of Smeerensburg, Jesper also transforms from an entitled, lazy jerk into a warm, caring man. We see this change most clearly through his budding relationship with little Márgu, a Saami child. When she first comes to Jesper to ask for a toy, he dismisses her because he only wants lo mail children’s letters to Klaus. By the end of the story, they have built a sweet friendship that surpasses their language barrier. The implicit message here is that helping others helps us, too. In doing good and helping others to make positive changes, we begin to change in positive ways, as well.
Other implied messages include: don’t judge a person by the axe they carry, women can be meaner than men, you can’t buy happiness, teachers know everything ever, and the kindness and enthusiasm of foreigners who don’t speak your language are great to exploit in your toymaking workshop.
In all, it was a delightful film. I laughed. I cried. I looked up Saami culture and learned a few things. And I put on a heavier sweater because everything looked reeeally cold.