Spoiler-free topline: If you like animation art and particularly want a non-Christian Christmas movie, this is the one. If you find Yuletide consumerism unsettling, look elsewhere.

Secular Christmas spirit is often a bit weird. Pagan Yules and solstices always have their own flavor and energy, so it isn’t that Christmassy spirit is confined to Christianity or that a syncretic celebration is invalid. But especially in their corporate-friendly incarnations, there is something a bit off about Moral Messages shoehorned onto a Santa figure disconnected from sainthood.

This is the malady of Klaus, a visually beautiful film that excels at everything that has ever been good about Dreamworks movies (despite not being a Dreamworks movie). Here is a whole thing about the tech they developed for the film to allow sumptuous 3d lighting effects on top of satisfyingly sproingy 2d hand drawn animation.

If it were trying to be amoral entertainment, it might work better, but it hammers on about the following:

  • People get caught in cycles of resentment and recrimination because these cycles are perpetuated by the power structures they enable (though let’s not take any kind of direct action against these structures)
  • Bribing children into better behavior with toys–toys, mind you, not meaningful improvement of general material conditions–is key to making them behave civilly, and children’s civil behavior will rub off on larger society
    • Absent these bribes, children and people will revert to their Hobbesian nature
  • Self-sacrifice is good because it has indirect effects that cause people to be better to each other
    • Therefore, you shouldn’t make your life about selfishly pursuing a comfortable existence

The contradictions aren’t direct, but they’re uncomfortable, aren’t they? Also, note the setting:

  • There is no religion, but there is Christmas. At Christmas, people decorate trees, but don’t give gifts to children. Christmas gifts are the domain of Klaus and Klaus alone; the movie never advances to the “it is good to give things to each other” level of moral attainment seen in other secular Christmas entertainment.
  • Klaus has an immortal soul, and probably his dead wife also, but they seem to be special for that.
  • Being nicer to each other changes the visual characteristics of the setting from poverty to comfort. (Something something trade is non-zero-sum something something?

I think it’s possible to have lovely secular holiday spirit around, you know, “peace on earth in our time”, moral imperatives toward charity and structural reform, etc., so I fault Klaus mostly because I think it could have been done better.