Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is definitely among the spookier animated Christmas tales out there, and it's liable to give more sensitive little ones some serious chills."

It's grim up north. Especially inside the Arctic Circle, in winter - and nowhere more so than in Smeerensburg. Located on a tiny, frozen island whose inhabitants are divided into two violently opposed clans, where children stare out wistfully from behind barred windows and the local school is full of dead fish (don't ask), it's a tough place to eke out a living, but it's where spoiled young wastrel Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is headed nonetheless. Sick of his profligate ways, his wealthy father has arranged for him to become the town's postman so that he can learn some responsibility - and until he's processed 6,000 letters, he won't be allowed to return home.

Though there's nothing here that's strictly inappropriate for children, this is definitely among the spookier animated Christmas tales out there, and it's liable to give more sensitive little ones some serious chills. The animation is full of the looming shapes and long, pointy shadows of German Expressionism. Innocent actions often place our hero in dire peril. Even the schoolteacher whom he takes a shine to looks as though she might murder him on a whim. And then there's Klaus.

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A dab hand with an axe, this hulking, darkly silhouetted figure, voiced by JK Simmons, is far from the cuddly Mr Claus that younger viewers may have been hoping for, but then, he hasn't really considered such things yet. He's a man burdened with a lot of pain, a man whose only joy comes from making toys and, occasionally, breaking into people's homes to leave them there and brighten up the lives of lonely children. When Jesper hits on the idea of having the children write letters to Klaus to request such gifts, he thinks he's solved both their problems - but every turn of events makes the scheme more complicated, the warring clans resent the peace that's breaking out, and - much to his surprise - Jesper finds himself getting emotionally invested in it all, which could lead to difficulty when the time comes to say goodbye.

A cut above the average seasonal tale due to its impressive cast and visual inventiveness, this film is full of unexpected references which will entertain older viewers but don't get in the way of the plot. Its well constructed comedy entertains on multiple levels so that there's something for viewers of all ages. There are a few pretty serious weaknesses in the plot and places where it's stretched very thin, but by and large it gets away with this because it has so much else going on, and its willingness to present us with initially unlikable characters means we care more about them as we get to know them. When your kids are demanding seasonal viewing, you could do a lot worse.

Reviewed on: 17 Jan 2020
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An spoiled young aristocrat sent to learn responsibility as a postman in a remote northern town meets an elderly toymaker and has a brilliant idea.

Director: Sergio Pablos, Carlos Martínez López

Writer: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zach Lewis

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, JK Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Joan Cusack, Neda Margrethe Labba

Year: 2019

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Spain, UK


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The Nightmare Before Christmas