Friday, December 9, 2011

The Nutcracker Prince

1990 brought the first English big screen animated adaptation of Hoffman's Nutcracker. And what a cast! Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables) as Clara, Peter O'Toole playing the supporting role of a soldier named Pantaloon, Phyllis Diller as the Mouse Queen, and Kiefer Sutherland (long before 24) as the Nutcracker Prince himself!

The film opens wonderfully with Clara and Fritz delivering gifts around town and going to visit Godpapa (who they also call "Uncle," though they establish he's not really an uncle) Drosselmeyer before they return home for the family Christmas party.

One element often ignored in Nutcracker adaptations appears: the older Stahlbaum sister Louise is present. (She was in Hoffman's book, but as her role is barely fleeting, she is often omitted.) She is being courted, and Clara notes this, partly in scorn, and, perhaps, envy. Clara also has a kitten named Pavola.

At the party, Fritz gets a soldier's hat and a toy cannon. Clara gets a doll she names Marie (it is noted that many times the name of the doll and the girl are exchanged, however, few adaptations I've seen feature the doll by name, if at all). Clara's mother says that this will likely be Clara's last doll: she is about to become a young woman.

Godpapa Drosselmeyer arrives with a magnificent clockwork castle that, when Fritz asks if anything can be changed about it, he covers and pushes away in a huff. Clara finds a Nutcracker among the presents and Drosselmeyer shows her how to crack nuts with it before Fritz takes it and mistakes a toy cannon ball for a nut and breaks off some of the teeth.

As music plays, Drosselmeyer tells Clara the story of why the Nutcracker looks the way he does. (The sequence is animated in a cruder style than the rest of the film and the voices are comically exaggerated.) In a kingdom far away, clockmaker Christian Elias Drosselmeyer and his nephew Hans serve a king who reigns with his queen and their teenage daughter Pirlipat. On the King's birthday, the Queen is making a bleu cheese cake when the Mouse Queen arrives and with her oafish son and all their mice subjects, destroys it. Enraged, the king orders that the mice be killed.

In revenge for killing her subjects, the Mouse Queen curses Pirlipat with ugliness. Blaming Drosselmeyer for his daughter's ugliness, the King is about to have him executed, but the Queen suggests that he find a way to restore their daughter instead. Drosselmeyer discovers the Krakatook nut can lift the curse, if it is broken by a young man who has never shaved or worn boots, if he cracks it with his eyes closed and takes seven steps backwards. (Luckily, there's a Krakatook nut in the Royal Nuthouse.)

The King sends a notice that anyone who can break it may have Pirlipat and the kingdom, but all eligible bachelors fail. In a last ditch effort to save his uncle, Hans attempts to break the nut and does so, but as he walks backwards, the Mouse Queen turns him into a Nutcracker. He falls over, causing a pillar to squash her, and her son's tail. The Nutcracker grows to a small size and the King and Pirlipat banish Drosselmeyer and Hans. The Mouse Queen's son swears revenge to the Nutcracker.

Clara shrugs the story off as a fairy tale, but that night, she returns to the Nutcracker and shows the other toys to him, including the soldier Pantaloon, and her dolls Marie and Miss Trudy. She sings to the Nutcracker (a lovely song that utilizes The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy as its melody), but when Pavola breaks an ornament, she turns to go upstairs. However, she sees a phantom-like Drosselmeyer on the clock. He opens his coat and magic flies from him, bringing the toys to life as mice led by the Mouse King (who has been redesigned to look more fearsome, even with just one head) swarm in. The Nutcracker doesn't have a sword, so Clara is forced to defend him against the Mouse King by throwing her slipper at him, but she hits her head against the clock and passes out.

Clara awakens in bed and is told she was found unconscious downstairs. Fritz gives her a half-eaten box of chocolates as a gift which she puts in a drawer. Drosselmeyer arrives with a fixed Nutcracker and vague answers to her questions about the night before. Her mother arrives and insists she needs rest and the Nutcracker should go back downstairs. Drosselmeyer promises to keep an eye on the Nutcracker.

That night, the Mouse King arrives in Clara's room and tells her he's going to chew the Nutcracker to pieces. She offers him the chocolates, but she catches him in the drawer and runs downstairs. Drosselmeyer is back on the clock and the toys reawaken for a second battle, one of the toys lending the Nutcracker a sword. He manages to stab the Mouse King in the chest and the mouse falls from the Christmas tree. However, Pantaloon has been damaged in battle and they must take him to the Land of the Dolls to fix him. Clara is invited to join, and Drosselmeyer shrinks her so she can go with the toys through the clockwork castle.

They are transported to a Christmas Forest full of Christmas trees on the backs of flying swans. Clara and the Nutcracker share a dance in the Candy Castle and he asks her to stay. She's love to, but she reflects that she wants to grow up. Her family and Pavlova need her, and she wants to dance in the ballet. This makes the toys freeze and resume their normal toy appearance. Suddenly, the Mouse King appears, wounded and angry. While the Nutcracker attempts to fight, he is slowly turning back into his wooden form. Clara fights him, and lures him to the balcony where they both fall off, but Clara grabs the edge and pulls herself back up, and sees the Castle abandoned and a mist filling it. She tearfully calls for the Nutcracker.

Suddenly, Clara awakens in her bed, Fritz excitedly telling her how Pavolva caught a mouse. She grabs her slippers and coat and runs downstairs. The Nutcracker is gone. She runs to Drosselmeyer's shop. He opens the door, possibly having expected her, and she begs him to tell her the truth about the Nutcracker and Mouse King, saying she must know what is and isn't real. However, a young man carrying a clock enters from the back room, and Drosselmeyer introduces him as his nephew, Hans.

"Hello, Clara," says Hans, bowing.

"Hello, Nutcracker," replies Clara.

The animation in The Nutcracker Prince is gorgeous (except in the Princess Pirlipat story, but that's intentional), and the voice acting is top notch. While the story deviates a little from the original Hoffman, it works very well as an adaptation.

There are two songs, the afore-mentioned song that Clara sings to the Nutcracker: "Save this Dance." During the end credits, a Tchaikovsky-inspired song called "Always Come Back To You" plays, sung by Natasha's Brother and Rachele Cappelli. Often song sequences can stick out like sore thumbs, particularly if they use a piece of well-known music as a basis. However, these work beautifully.

The Nutcracker Prince wasn't a big box office success, so it's mainly been relegated to a video release, television broadcasts, and low budget DVDs. To be honest, for being one of the best adaptations of the Hoffman story that uses little from the ballet, I'd say it deserves much better recognition.


Sam A M said...

Oh yes, I remember this one. I think my family watched it once on TV (my sister finding it funny with Clara throwing food at the Mouse King towards the end), I thought the music was quite loud and intense towards the end of the movie (before the end credits. I had forgotten how the animation looked "more real" as Clara and the Nutcracker dance (she almost sounds like Kathryn Beaumont as Disney's Alice in that bit) and I liked that bit where Marie the doll WHACKS a mouse after getting her dress dirty!

Ozfan95 said...

I saw this movie recently. I think that it is THE most faithful adaptation of Hoffmann's story.

However, we still need a definitive adaptation, and we will probably never get one.

Oh, well, this movie was fun to watch!

Anonymous said...

Excellent movie. Very faithfull to Hoffmann's story.