The holiday season always brings multiple iterations of the Nutcracker story, the children's tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann that became a beloved Tchaikovsky ballet. This year, in New York alone, there's the Balanchine version at the New York City Ballet, choreographer Mark Morris' dysfunctional-family take "The Hard Nut," and an adults-only burlesque entitled "Nutcracker: Rated R." But it never occurred to me--nor, after seeing The Nutcracker 3D (Freestyle Releasing) have I been convinced--that we needed a Nutcracker with a Nazi allegory. This non-balletic adaptation by the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky is something gnarled and stunted and wrong, something that should never have been allowed to see the light of day. How's that for a holiday-ad pullquote?
Call to mind some of the famous melodies from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, which you know by heart even if you don't know you do: the Russian dance or the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Now imagine these brief, wordless bursts of musical bliss supplied with achingly banal and unmemorable lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar). And then further imagine them sung by non-dancing non-singers in a green-screen void, to be superimposed later over a murky CGI background converted to 3D in post-production. Even before we've gotten to the Nazis, that should give you an idea of what a denatured aberration this Nutcracker became. It was created by a group of people who, confoundingly, assembled somewhere and agreed that all the Tchaikovsky ballet needed was less dancing and more doggerel. (If my ears heard right, there's also a last-act song based on a different Tchaikovsky piece, which will strike classical music listeners as the final indignity: at least desecrate one of the guy's works at a time!)
We begin in what appears to be between-two-wars Vienna (recreated on a Hungarian soundlot, where tax breaks made it cheaper for Konchalovsky to shoot). It's Christmas Eve. As in the original, the young heroine, here named Mary (Elle Fanning), gets a wooden nutcracker doll as a gift from a magical relative--in this version, a kindly uncle played by Nathan Lane, with giant Einstein hair and an even more outsized Austrian accent. ("Vot do you sink of zis, Mary?") That night after everyone is asleep, the doll comes alive and tells Mary his story: he's really a prince (Charlie Rowe) who's been put under a spell by the evil Rat King (John Turturro), a rodent dictator who's taken over the prince's peaceful homeland and filled it with belching smokestacks and gloomy Third Reich architecture.
I suppose I shouldn't push the Nazi/rat analogy too far, for fear of bringing down Godwin's Law upon my head. But I'm not the one who outfitted the rat army in Prussian-style spiked helmets and vaguely fascist uniforms, or gave them lines alluding to "an empire that will last a thousand years." The scenes in the underground headquarters of the Rat King are ill-conceived to a staggering degree: scary and confusing for small children, grindingly tedious for adults.
Heartbreakingly, the ballet's second act in the Land of Sweets--the fantasyland where the heroine and her prince admire dances by personified goodies from all over the world--has been eliminated entirely: there's no Sugar Plum Fairy, no Arabian coffee dance, no Mother Ginger with a row of children stashed under her voluminous skirt. After all, why would kids want to visit a brightly colored world of dancing candies when they could be battling Nazi rodents in a CGI steampunk helicopter?
This version also saddles poor Mary with neglectful parents (Richard E. Grant and Yulia Visotskaya) who casually dash out on her and her brother (Aaron Michael Drozin) on Christmas Eve, creating an abandonment-issues subplot that's resolved in a hasty, unconvincing coda. This is especially sad given that both Richard E. Grant (Withnail!) and Elle Fanning bring all they've got to their underwritten roles. Fanning, Dakota's 12-year-old sister, is a wonderfully fresh, uncloying young actress and my longtime pick for Best Fanning. Elle's not to blame for this movie's spectacular failure; she remains a bright spark amid the squalor.
The Nutcracker 3D was scheduled for release last Christmas, but held back for another year of tinkering after pre-screening audiences wisely recoiled. But whatever was done to the film in the interim wasn't enough to overcome the project's foundational incoherence. It's an awful thing to say about a children's classic at Christmastime, but this Nutcracker should have been strangled in its crib.