There have been worse movies than The Nutcracker in 3D. Certainly films made with less ambition, with less skilled actors and more modest sets and effects budgets. But it’s genuinely challenging to recall a more wrong-headed film than Andrei Konchalovsky’s convoluted, frankly baffling re-imagining of a beloved children’s story and ballet.
For all its popularity and name-recognition, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker is a bit light on plot. All the incident is front-loaded to the first half. A girl receives a nutcracker as a Christmas gift. She brings him to life, so he can do battle with the Rat King that enslaved him, and then they return to his fantasy kingdom. The entire second half is just fairies celebrating the Nutcracker’s return. Pretty anti-climactic.
Obviously, anyone wanting to turn the story into a traditional children’s film would have to rework it. But Konchalovsky’s decision to turn the story into a WWII analogy, and to fill the second half with sci-fi/fantasy chase sequences was clearly not the best strategy. (Also, his decision to rework Tchaikovsky’s iconic Nutcracker themes into cheesy musical numbers…more on that later…)
The basic story of The Nutcracker has thus been twisted into this inane sub-Bruckheimer pumped-up fantasy epic about an evil fascist Rat City and the prince, who has been magically transformed into a Nutcracker, that must retake human form and a human rebellion against the rats.
Mary (Elle Fanning) receives the titular gift from her eccentric grandfather, who also happens to be Albert Einstein (Nathan Lane). There’s no real good reason for Albert Einstein to appear in the film, nor for him to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the film’s audience, but shatter the illusion of the movie he does. Repeatedly! The movie is filled with strange, pointless touches like this, as if Konchalovsky was making it in a total vacuum without any outside input. (Like, say, turning the story of The Nutcracker into a fantasy vision of The Holocaust.)
Once the Nutcracker, or N.C. as he prefers to be called, comes to life, he leads Mary on a journey into her family’s Christmas tree, which has now massively grown in size. This is the “best,” I suppose, sequence of the film, as Konchalovsky stops adding layers of complication and allusions to the tale and just lets The Nutcracker be The Nutcracker. The 3D is not particularly impressive, and it does kind of wash out all the colors, but it is being used to express the scale of the environments rather than just as a gimmick. A brief sequence in which Mary ballet dances through the air along with some fairies somewhat ably captures the spirit of the original, and the kind of scene you actually EXPECT from a movie called The Nutcracker in 3D.
Once they’ve scaled the tree, though, the entire film skips the rails. (Even more than during the “Albert Einstein speaking into the camera” bits, if you can believe it.) We’re introduced to John Turturro as the villainous, humanoid Rat King, who dreams of blocking out the sun with plumes of smoke generated by burning children’s toys. The next hour is a loud, shrill, poorly-realized and somewhat offensive chase sequence through the totalitarian Rat Kingdom. Konchalovsky has clearly intended the Rat Kingdom sequences to mirror Europe during the Third Reich, right down to the uniforms and sunken-eyed populace being rounded up and forced into work camps. But WHY?
What does the story of The Nutcracker – a story about Christmas and family and childhood and the wonders of imagination – have to do with the Nazi scourge? And what does any of this have to do with Albert Einstein? Konchalovsky doesn’t seem to know…Nazis were rats, these bad guys are rats, right? That sort of works.
And as if all this awkward, clunky action, silly sci-fi touches (rats with jetpacks! robot rat dogs!) and woeful attempts at comedy weren’t painful enough, we’re treated to a variety of drab, repetitive songs, in which lyricist Tim Rice has set rhyming couplets about the Theory of Relativity to familiar medleys like “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” The two styles fundamentally don’t match. And it’s not like Tchaikovsky needs help anyway, right?
It’s rare to see a film in which absolutely nothing works. Just by the law of probability, you’d think Konchalovsky would make one correct decision, even if purely by accident. But it doesn’t really happen here. Between John Turturro’s ridiculous blonde wig (making his Rat King resemble Andy Warhol on Halloween), the four different endings and the CG-animated Nutcracker’s creepy anthropomorphic teeth, there’s no salvaging this one.