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'Klaus' Is Up For Best Animated Feature Film At Oscars

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Oscars are on Sunday, and one movie caught our attention this year because of its really original and pleasantly weird premise. It's called "Klaus," and the movie is the origin story of Santa Claus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KLAUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Mr. Klaus is the coolest.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey, have you heard about Klaus?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) His name is Klaus, and he makes the best toys.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Klaus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Klaus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Klaus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) He's awesome.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) His toys are the best.

KING: The movie's been nominated for best animated feature film. It was written and directed and drawn by Spanish animator Sergio Pablos. When we talked, he told me that he was inspired by superhero origin stories, like Batman's.

SERGIO PABLOS: Especially "Batman Begins," that was the one that kind of hit me. I was like...

KING: Yeah.

PABLOS: ...Well, how great would it be to find my own already existing character that is missing that chapter - and if I can find an interesting way. And I was not looking for Santa. I landed on Santa, and the first instinct was like, huh, no. And I just moved on and I kept looking, you know, 'cause I felt that the first notion that came to mind was a very sappy film. But I just kept going back. Well, if I can find that non-corny version of the story, you know, it might be something interesting.

KING: "Klaus" doesn't take place in the North Pole. It takes place in a remote snowy town called Smeerensburg that seems Scandinavian. Smeerensburg is a bad, dark place. Two big families have been warring for centuries, and they spend most of their time creatively and sometimes hilariously attacking each other. Meanwhile, there's this scary hermit who lives alone in the woods. His name is Klaus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KLAUS")

JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jesper) He knows.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) What do you mean?

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jesper) He sees every mischief, prank and dirty deed. He keeps a list. The naughty list, he calls it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) You lie.

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jesper) Trust me. You do not want to be on the naughty list.

KING: "Klaus," the movie, is hand-drawn. So if you remember Disney movies like "Beauty And The Beast" or "Aladdin," it looks like that. It looks like a throwback, a beautiful one. Pablos worked for Disney in the '90s back when hand-drawn animation was king. But then CGI came along, and the industry started to change. So he went back to Spain, and he kept drawing.

PABLOS: The film is actually hand-drawn. I mean, we actually went old school with this one, and we called up all my old buddies that we used to work with. And we trained as many of the new artists to work in these mediums. So the baseline of what you're seeing on the screen is people drawing and people painting. Of course, we used new technologies to try and advance the medium. But the truth is we were going for that story book look that you were just describing. We were hoping to have it feel like a moving piece of art.

KING: You worked as an artist for Disney in the 1990s. You're credited in "Hercules," "Tarzan;" these are Disney classics. What did you take away from that experience?

PABLOS: Well, those were some of the best years of my life. I mean, yeah, you can understand I was, you know, a kid who loved to draw. And when I found out very young that my favorite films were made through drawing - these were actually drawings - I thought, well, that's the highest version of drawing anyone could aspire to, to actually make the drawings come to life. So it was very much my dream to work at Disney one day, and when that dream came true and I got to work on some of these films, I was on cloud nine. I probably would still be doing that if the world hadn't changed with the advent of CGI, you know. But if you remove the component of drawing, my love for drawing from it, I lose interest. I'm not saying 2D is better or 3D is better. I'm saying different people have different abilities. And for someone like me who loves to draw, there needs to be a medium through which I can tell my stories.

KING: Was there a fear in your mind at the time that the kind of animation that you do, the hand-drawn animation, would just become obsolete?

PABLOS: Oh, yeah, it almost did. We haven't seen a high-end 2D film for a long time. And I thought, well, whatever we do, if we want to make a film a hand-drawn film, we have to not just call back on nostalgia but actually try to push the medium forward with a different tone of story, with a different artwork. And that was the attempt to basically say, hey, this medium doesn't have to be dead. We can still do things with it.

KING: Your studio is in Spain. Is that right?

PABLOS: That's correct.

KING: What's the animation industry like there?

PABLOS: Well, it's slowly maturing, I think. You know, a lot of people like me, we chose to - when there were not many professional options in Spain, we chose to go elsewhere, and same was the case with France or Italy. Artists flock to, you know, the big studios in Hollywood. And we got experience, and some of us chose to return and to pass that knowledge along and to try and do other things with it. So I think a lot of it is like that, that current of people who did learn from the greats, you know, at Disney, at DreamWorks, at Pixar, you know, who are now applying that knowledge to their own films back home.

KING: You're the co-creator of "Despicable Me," which is the animated film about a criminal mastermind voiced by Steve Carell. This became a very, very successful franchise. There must be some key that makes a really good animated story.

PABLOS: Well, I don't look at animation as genre. It's - I think it's a misconception.

KING: Really?

PABLOS: Yeah. I think it's a misconception to think of animation as genre. My dad used to own video stores, and he would qualify these films. You know, he would have these different shelves, you know, and animation went in that one shelf. And then when anime started coming out on video, he would put this extremely adult, horrendous anime on the children section (laughter).

KING: Oh, no, because it was cartoons.

PABLOS: To him, it was just cartoons. And I tried to get him to understand. It was not until customers started complaining that he actually got it. But I - we are filmmakers, and we are, to a certain degree, forced to work in family entertainment, in family-oriented - family comedies is really what most of us do these days because that's what the market accepts. But I do believe - like, you know, for example, you have another Oscar contender this year, "I Lost My Body," which is a very adult film. It's a magnificent piece of filmmaking. And it was never intended for kids, and that's fine, you know. So I would very much like for animation to spread out into other genres. Like, I would love to see a historical drama or a horror film done in animation. Why not?

KING: Sergio Pablos is writer and director of "Klaus," a movie which is nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature film. Thank you so much for being with us.

PABLOS: Thank you so much for having me.

KING: By the way, Sergio Pablos says he in no way expected that "Klaus" would be nominated for an Academy Award. This is how his production team reacted when the nominees were announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CHO: Here are the nominees - "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World..."

(APPLAUSE)

CHO: "Klaus."

(CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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