Ballet is out, Third Reich imagery is in in The Nutcracker in 3D, a mostly awful and disturbing reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite.
So that’s what’s always been missing from those traditional versions of The Nutcracker.
Mary (Elle Fanning), the central little girl here (the Clara, for traditionalists), is the child of an uninterested father (Richard E. Grant) and a diva-ish mother (Yuliya Vysotskaya) in what looks like turn-of-the-last-century Vienna. Her parents are going out on, er, Christmas Eve I think (there’s some “but it’s Christmas” talk), leaving her and her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) in the care of their uncle (Nathan Lane), who is apparently Albert Einstein (no, seriously, they call him “Uncle Albert” and he sings about his theory of relativity). He brings a wind-up dollhouse featuring curious-looking dolls — a chimpanzee named Gielgud (voice of Alan Cox), a sad clown and a drummer boy named Sticks (Africa Nile) — and, just for Mary, a nutcracker named NC.
After she goes to bed, she is awakened and meets a lively version of NC (voice of Shirley Henderson) who can talk. He works his magic, growing into a wooden boy almost as big as Mary and taking her down to her family’s living room, where the tree is now stories high.
She learns that NC is really a prince (Charlie Rowe) who has been trapped in his wooden form by the Rat Queen (Frances de la Tour), the mother of the Rat King (John Turturro). The prince used to rule over a city that looked something like Vienna until the Rat King, a bafflingly Andy Warhol-resembling rat dictator, took it over and had him turned into a toy. The movie shows us how he and his army — a rat army looking very much like the German army, circa World War II, helmets, gray coats, skulls and all — invaded the city. Because rats are afraid of the light, he blocks the sun by producing a cloud of black smoke, achieved via smokestacks from giant incinerators burning, among other things, all the city’s children’s toys. Thusly we are also treated to images of children rounded up into city squares where, crying, they leave a pile of their toys. Mary is charged with helping NC to end the Rat King’s reign of terror.
Horrified yet, Nutcracker fans? This isn’t some “what a fascinating new twist on a classic” Duke Ellington version of the Nutcracker. This isn’t even a dark version on the level of last year’s animated A Christmas Carol. This is some nightmare version that strips away everything wondrous and delightful about the music and the performance that often accompanies it and leaves only a movie too frightening for children (how many times in one year can kids be expected to contemplate the destruction of beloved toys before they just never willingly sleep again?) and too bleak and depressing for adults. Just like Hitler shouldn’t be invoked in arguments not actually involving Nazi Germany, it doesn’t seem cool to pull out the darkest of World War II imagery just to make your Nutcracker seem edgy.
When it’s not freaking you out with the visuals, The Nutcracker in 3D is mounting an assault on your ears. We get not nearly enough of the music (and it is frequently pushed deep into the background), and much of what we do get has lyrics. Contemplate for a moment the horror of lyrics accompanying, say, “Waltz of the Flowers” or the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” My job involves remembering details about movies, but this was one time when I hoped I would quickly forget all memories of the lyrics so I could one day enjoy the music again.
The Nutcracker in 3D gets exactly one all-too-brief segment right. As Mary and NC ascend into the Christmas tree in Mary’s living room we get a hint of what about this work has enchanted audiences — particularly girl audiences — for years. We get the twinkling and sparkling lights and beautiful ornaments coming to life. When Mary meets a group of flying, illuminated dancers she is able to live every little girl’s dream and dance and fly with them. It is a nice moment — it is, actually, the only nice moment. D
Rated PG for thematic material, scary images, action and brief smoking. Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy and written by Konchalovskiy and Chris Solimine, The Nutcraker in 3D is an hour and 50 minutes long and distributed by Freestyle Releasing.