Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Nutcracker in 3D/The Untold Story

I really hope director Andrei Konchalovsky wasn't serious when he said his take on The Nutcracker had been his dream project for 20 years. At a $90 million budget, it was a severe failure when it only took in less than $15 million, most of that not from U.S. sales. It was filmed in 2007, set for release in 2009, then held back another year while they converted it into 3D. Critics gave it severely negative criticism.

So, what could it be that made this movie flop? Could it be the inept acting from the child actors? The wretched songs lifted from Tchaikovsky's score for the ballet? Maybe Nathan Lane's character repeatedly breaking the fourth wall? What about the plot?

In 1920s Vienna, Uncle Albert (Einstein, oh brother...) visits his niece and nephew Mary and Max. He presents them with a dollhouse full of clockwork dolls, and a Nutcracker he calls "NC for short." (I just have to wonder at who would find the word "nutcracker" to be a mouthful.) NC is turned over to Mary, but as they leave for dinner, Max attempts to cram NC's mouth full of walnuts, breaking his lower jaw off. Uncle Albert repairs NC, but that night, NC comes to life and takes Mary downstairs where she finds the room has become immense: the Christmas tree towers to the stars!

The dolls in the dollhouse are now alive, and as they climb the Christmas tree, Mary finds the Snow Fairy (played by the same actress as her mother), who manages to turn NC back into a prince (after Mary has a plot-stopping dance with the snowflakes). But the Rat King who plans to enslave the human world is aware of what happened and has his mother renew her curse on the prince. (I have to mention that the Rat Queen is played by the same woman who plays Mary's family's housekeeper. Please, stop cribbing from MGM's Wizard of Oz when you write your fantasies...) The rat king has mechanical dogs bite into the base of the Christmas tree, knocking it over.

When Mary's parents return home from a concert, they find their tree (now normal sized) knocked over. The father blames the children quite angrily, even though Max is seen looking at the tree's base which has obviously been cut into. Mary refuses to hand over the Nutcracker and goes upstairs. Meanwhile, a visit from Uncle Albert helps soothe Mary's father.

That night, Mary and NC are joined by Max in their campaign against the Rat King, who quickly imprisons NC and the clockwork people from the doll house. After taking Max with him, a doll who managed to escape the Rat King takes Mary through a mirror to NC's world, where the Rat King has been having children's toys burnt to block out the sun. ("Who Shot Mr. Burns?" anyone?) Max refuses to help the Rat King, who thought he enjoyed breaking toys, because Max doesn't believe in breaking other people's toys.

Mary escapes into the place where they bulldoze all the toys before they are thrown into a furnace. She finds the Clockwork Dolls and a broken and lifeless NC. While the Dolls distract the guards (with a terrible song set to the March theme), Mary saves NC from the conveyor belt that would have taken him to the fire. She manages to revive him with a tear (yay, another fantasy cliche), which also restores him to his Prince form permanently. This causes a revolt in the slave workers, who quickly beat up the rats.

The Rat Queen suggests flight this time and thinks her son is abandoning her when Max offers to fly the flying machine for her. Which he can't do. The Rat King takes Mary to the flying machine and attempts to knock the Prince off a building, but it results in him and one of the Clockwork dolls getting onboard the machine as well. While these two help overpower the Rat King, Max crashes the flying machine, which he didn't want to do.

Seeing they are defeated, the Rat Queen and King turn into regular rats (they were humans with ratlike faces) and escape into the sewers. While the people rejoice, Mary is told she must go back home by the Snow Fairy. The Prince promises her she'll see him soon.

When she awakes in her own bed, Mary is told she has a visitor. Uncle Albert introduces him as his new neighbor, Nicholas Charles. The two go ice skating together.

The problem with this Nutcracker is that it tries to be a fantasy action movie being way too gloomy and sometimes scary for children to enjoy. Okay, I take back "scary." A kid might get shocked at the Rat King suddenly having a wide mouth and fangs or one of the Clockwork doll's heads removed and tossed around, but that's about it. Really, the plot makes no sense. A bunch of Nazi-looking rat people who are never seen physically hurting any regular people try to take over the human world? I suppose this dream world has never heard of poison. So, that's it. It's too somber for children, too silly for adults.

As an adaptation of the Nutcracker story, it fails. The trailer credits only Tchaikovsky as the creator of the Nutcracker story, a very inaccurate statement indeed. He wrote the music for the ballet, not the libretto or the choreography. No other credit to the creator of the original work was seen in the credits of the film. So, not only does this film only have the barest, slightest resemblance to Hoffman's original story, it doesn't even acknowledge him. As a result, I almost wish I could have excluded it from my reviews. However, it would be a wasted effort after trying to hunt it down for almost a year.

"Based on the story by Tchaikovsky" my foot. Hoffman wrote the original book, Dumas rewrote it in French, Marius Pepita adapted Dumas for the story for the ballet, and had Tchaikovsky write the music. Crediting Tchaikovsky for the Nutcracker story is like saying Judy Garland is responsible for The Wizard of Oz.

It's really a shame because $90 million could really have done Hoffman's story justice. Unfortunately, the creative talent (both words used loosely) behind this film didn't even know who he was.


Nathan said...

I guess the MGM movie could be said to be ripping off Peter Pan (specifically Mr. Darling/Captain Hook) with the duplicate actors in the real and fantasy worlds, but I don't know if anyone did it before that.

Sam A M said...

The Trailer does has some good bits, but yes it does some like a major disappointment. More like a TV-Movie than a Theatrical release.

If Universal does a new version, let's hope it's much better . . .

Oz Fan said...

You know what? I respect your opinion. I read your review before I saw this movie. From the sound of it, I thought it would be stupid. I mean, only crediting Tchicovsky with the story? What kind of people are these?

As a kid, i was read an abridged version of the story when i was only five years old. It happened to use the plot of the original story rather than the ballet's plot. I loved the story. Then a few years later, I saw the ballet for the first time. I hated it. It had completely done away with the story's original message. The adventure was all a dream in this cersion, while it was real in the book. And Marie's name was changed to Clara. Why?

Since then, I've become more tolerant of the ballet. It's fun to watch (at least the first act, the second act is kind of boring), but it's still not as good as the book. The book is a great piece of literature right up there with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

About a year ago, I downloaded the soundtrack to one version of the Nutcracker. I decided to read the unabridged version of the story while I listened to the soundtrack. I wanted to see how well it would sync up to it. Surprisingly, at the speed I read the story at, it matched up very well. The book is longer than the soundtrack by about ten to fifteen minutes I stopped the music it right at the point in Drosselmayer's story where Drosselmayer's nephew is cursed, and turned it back on when Marie and the Nutcracker entered the Land of Dolls. I thought Waltz of the Flowers (which was the track it would start at when I started it again) would fit great with the entrance to the alternate world. All in all, the soundtrack synced up with the story pretty well. I repeated it again this year, because it was so fun.

Then I decided to look up this movie version. The plot summary on certain websites didn't sound promising, and your review made me want to see it even less.

But then I came across it on YouTube. And I said, "Why not? There are probably worse movies out there."

So I watched the entire movie. And much to my surprise, I actually liked it.

I was so happy to see a great adventure story in this movie. I spent most of the movie wondering, "is it a dream, or real?"

At the end, the question is never answered. But the movie suggests that maybe it was real. That's more than I can say for other adaptations, where it's made pretty clear that it was a dream. Also, Mary's brother is made more sympathetic in this version, which is more how I pictured him when I read the book.

While there are some pretty cheesy points in this movie, and while i wish the main characters had put on British accents (the Nutcracker story just works better with British accents), and while I wish they had adapted the book directly, and while I wish the credit for the source had been proper, this movie was much truer to the spirit of the book than most other adaptations I've seen. I think people are a little too harsh with this movie. I can understand where you're going with this review, but I, for one, loved this movie.

You are entitled to your opinion. You can hate this movie all you want. But I loved it. A great underrated masterpiece.