One has to wonder whether it’s time that “The Nutcracker” was retired as Christmas fare. Most of today’s youngsters will be bored or irritated by the ballet, and wouldn’t even know what a nutcracker is. But if you’re going to do the piece, Andrei Konchalovsky’s is certainly not the right way. All the earlier attempts to translate it to the screen have failed for a variety of reasons—including, in one case, Macaulay Culkin’s inability to dance. But Konchalovsky’s certainly takes the cake for sheer wrong-headedness; just about every choice he’s made is a mistake. The result is a movie that’s likely to terrify children while it appalls adults. It’s an utter travesty of the ballet, a big-budget bomb of “Howard the Duck” proportions.
First decision: drop the dancing entirely. You might think this a strange alteration for a ballet, but no mind. What to do with the music, then? Well, use some snippets of it as background score. Even better, take a few melodies and add insipid English lyrics (by Tim Rice and Edward Artemiev) to them, the way Wright and Forrest did with Grieg’s music in “Song of Norway” and Borodin’s in “Kismet” (and much less successfully with Rachmaninov’s in the bomb “Anya”). Voila, you’ve got a musical—a bad one, to be sure, but so what? (Apparently the melody-rich ballet didn’t provide enough tunes for our master craftsmen—at one point they raid Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, too.) And since you now have a musical, add a bit of Broadway pizzazz in the person of Nathan Lane, who plays Uncle Albert (the Drosselmeyer character) with all the bug-eyed scenery-chewing he’d muster if he was playing to the furthest row in the largest theatre on the Great White Way.
As for the story, you can’t get away from young Mary’s (erstwhile Clara—played by Elle Fanning) enchantment with the nutcracker (a CGI figure voiced by Shirley Henderson), who turns into a boy prince (Charlie Rowe) under the magical power of The Snow Fairy (Yulia Visotskaya, who also plays Mary’s mother—Richard E. Grant is her stern father). But it isn’t long before the Rat King (John Turturro) and his horrid minions intervene. In this telling, he and his witch mother (Frances de la Tour) had transformed the prince into the wooden nutcracker and stolen his kingdom, which they’ve turned into a dark fascist realm whose citizens are marched through the streets like captives being herded off to camps, and where children must surrender their toys to stoke the furnaces that belch out black smoke to obliterate the sunlight and thereby keep the kingdom under the rodent’s control. (If this is intended as a reference to the death camp crematoria, Konchalovsky’s lack of taste would really be astronomical; let’s just assume it wasn’t.)
Konchalovsky’s plot has Mary, the Prince and her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) sneak into the Rat King’s realm and try to topple him from power. It’s a laborious and boring adventure in which Turturro and de la Tour are supposed to camp it up amusingly and the children’s peril to be taken as harmless fun. But the tone is completely off: the rats aren’t remotely funny, just grotesquely frightening, especially when in moments of anger their faces suddenly change into huge, snarling mouths with hideous complements of teeth, and the action the kids are trapped in isn’t choreographed skillfully enough to keep it from becoming a chaotic bore.
It’s unnecessary to catalogue all of the other additions to the original—like the other dolls the Nutcracker has had to dwell with in a dollhouse over the years (one of them a particularly irritating Caribbean drummer!). The preceding paragraphs should be sufficient to demonstrate that what’s offered here isn’t a version of Tchaikovsky’s perennial, or even a proper adaptation of it, but a grossly misguided perversion. But it’s not just in comparison to the ballet that this “Nutcracker” proves a disgrace. It’s simply dreadful on its own children’s-adventure terms. Add mediocre effects and uninspired 3D to the mix, and you have a holiday lump of coal the size of Mount Everest.
The nuttiness of the movie (pun intended) is comparable to last year’s grotesque holiday mistake “The Road,” the horrible adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel that was released at Thanksgiving despite the fact that it included a plot thread involving cannibalism—just what the family spirit ordered. Fun-filled fascism is an even graver miscalculation. (First Mel Brooks gives us “Springtime for Hitler,” and now Konchalovsky adds “Christmas with Adolf.”) If you’re in the mood for a real “Nutcracker” this season, there’s a new DVD version from Opus Arte that features a spectacular traditional staging from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It doesn’t cost much more than a ticket to this monstrosity, and will serve for years to come; and watching it after sitting through this misbegotten mistake is like a breath of fresh air after sucking in too much of the Rat King’s foul black smoke.