A shorter version of this review was previously published at The Film Experience

There are two different, and perhaps irreconcilable ways to watch Klaus.

First, we could look at it as the directorial debut of Sergio Pablos, an animator who rose through Disney in the 1990s, ending up getting his first supervising animator credits on 1999's Tarzan and 2002's Treasure Planet, after which point it was bad business being a supervising animator at Disney as it shuttered and re-tooled its feature animation division. So he spent the 2000s floating around the world working on this or that project, creating the Despicable Me franchise for the newborn Illumination Entertainment, and founding his own studio in Madrid, SPA Studios. The goal was to do more or less exactly what he's done: create this long-gestating passion project (which has been patiently animated by a small crew for years - updates and footage have been coming out for more than four years) as a way of bringing hand-drawn animation on the '90s Disney model into the modern world, with all the polish and digital sweetening necessary to compete in the 2010s. And in this, Pablos succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation: Klaus is one of the most astonishing feats of animation of the decade, the most radical advance to the medium since... okay, so Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is only eleven months older than Klaus, so "the most radical animated movie since Spider-Verse" sounds really unimpressive, but if we pretend that movie didn't existed, it expands that "since..." by a whole lot of years.

Second, we could look at this in light of the company that ended up buying the international distribution rights to the half-finished Klaus and sank their money into finishing it. Klaus, you see, is a Netflix original production, yet another player from their increasingly deep bench of Christmas-themed movies. The Netflix Christmas picture has become a genre unto itself, and while Klaus is a bit unusual by virtue of being animated (it is, indeed, the first Netflix-exclusive animated feature), it's hard not to think about its pedigree while watching it. For, as Christmas movies go - Netflix or otherwise - Klaus is kind of irritating, a collection of tin-eared dialogue, odd casting choices, and dated clichรฉs of kids' movie screenwriting. To be fair, it's more uninteresting than actively bad, but there's a distinctly mildewy smell to it all.

The film centers on Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the spoiled adult son of a dynasty of wealthy postmasters in Scandinavia sometime in the 19th Century. His father, having run out of patience with his son's fecklessness, exiles the young man to Smeerensburg, a remote town on a miserable northern island, with a hideous ultimatum: establish a thriving post office branch in a town that has firmly resisted it to this point, or be disinherited and thrown out on the street. Once on the island, Jesper finds himself in the middle of a generations-long feud waged between the Ellingboes (their leader voiced by Will Sasso) and the Krums (their leader voiced by Joan Cusack), the kind of long-fermenting social hatred that has persisted only because it's been going on for so long that it would be a shame to abandon it. The only people who'll talk to him at all are the town's other outsiders: Alva (Rashida Jones), the resentful inhabitant of a long-abandoned schoolhouse, where she's running out a term as the town's nominal schoolteacher, and Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a carpenter who lives in the woods at the extreme northern end of the island, and has a huge cobwebby warehouse full of charming hand-crafted toys. And, albeit cautiously, the town's children, who haven't quite absorbed the adults' wrath, and find the lanky new postmaster to be a curious enough figure to pay him some attention. Largely by accident, Jesper realises that his best shot at getting the post office on its feet is to encourage the local kids to send letters to Klaus asking for one of his toys, at a penny a pop; as the two men distribute them, the kids themselves start adding details to this peculiar economic system, based on misunderstandings and half-seen evidence of Jesper's passage: flying reindeer, coal in a stocking if you've been naughty, leaving out cookies as a bribe, things of that nature.

In short: it's a Santa Claus origin story, which is the best thing about it. The depiction of traditions growing out of random occurrences is presented with a decent quantity of wit and respect for the viewer's intelligence: the film doesn't waste much time spelling out things we could figure out for ourselves. It also threads an impossible fine needle of presenting a thoroughly materialist, rational explanation for how the Claus cult acquired its strange habits, while also preserving a sweet and, dare I say it, magical tone that honors the innocence of childhood imagination. The worst things about it are almost everything else, from the relentless boilerplate conception of Jesper and his inevitable softening as his actions end up making the town a better place to live, to the equally relentless anachronistic sarcasm that makes up most of the film's sense of humor. It feels like the most generic "ironic and hip - but for kids!" animation screenplay of the 1990s exhumed and updated only with a couple of glancing references to e-mail. The performances are channeling the same energy (someone pointed out to me that Schwartzman is a dead ringer for Emperor's New Groove-era David Spade, and now I can't think of anything else), and the end result is something that's frankly a bit shrill in its cool smugness.

The moral of the above story: let's look at it the first way. Because, taken as Pablos's much-loved and fussed-over baby, and an earnest attempt to get SPA on the international map by doing something really bold and innovative with the medium, that's where Klaus gets itself into masterpiece territory. Simply put, this looks like nothing else out there, past or present. The film is a miraculous, unclassifiable hybrid of different kinds of animation: hand-drawn characters who have been carefully designed and painted to have the fullness of 3-D computer animation, and 3-D animation lighting, but done only with 2-D painting tools; the effects and spaces, meanwhile, are done in 3-D, giving a deep, atmospheric world for the beautiful characters to inhabit. The characters are very Disney-influenced (Jesper looks and moves like Dr. Doppler, Pablos's character from Treasure Planet), and like Don Bluth before him, Pablos conceived of the project in part to revive and preserve the strengths of Disney's aesthetic: mostly the squishy, highly-expressive faces of Disney's characters, with their huge, appealing saucer-shaped eyes.

The whole project feels a bit like Disney's experiments in combining 3-D spaces and 2-D characters - the ballroom scene inย Beauty and the Beast, the flight through the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, and so on - with decades of further technical refinement that Disney itself abandoned even before it gave up making 2-D movies in the mid-2000s. The disconnect between characters environments that Disney never quite cracked is completely gone here: heretofore unseen digital painting techniques have been applied to the hand-drawn characters to give them three-dimensional textures. But they've also been painted with with an eye to preserving their hand-drawn qualities rather than simply making them look like 3-D models. It is, in a very real sense, the best of two worlds that have never completely played nice before this.

The end result of this is a film that inerrantly captures the look of a cherished holiday picture book, richly colored and detailed to evoke a magical northern neverland of hazy and snow and trees, and eccentric buildings to house eccentric-looking people. And beyond the design of the world, the bleeding-edge technique used to bring that world to life allows Pablos and his collaborators to inject the film with a freedom of movement that makes the world feel full and alive and physically present. It's a cutesy nostalgic holiday confection that looks as fresh and new as anything to have come out this year. The script storytelling are problem, no doubt, but the elaborate richness of the visuals are more than enough to make up for it, and then some. This makes an extraordinarily strong argument for SPA Studios as worthy of a great deal of future attention (and money), and while I'm not confident that it deserves to live on as a modern Christmas classic, I won't complain if it turns out to do so.