REVIEW: Terrifying, Weird Nutcracker in 3-D Features the Best Effects iMovie Can Buy
Almost two centuries of holiday-friendly goodwill go up in a sun-blotting, smokestack cloud in The Nutcracker in 3-D, the most confounded in the long and miscegenetic line of adaptations of E.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 story. Gone, too, is the considerable rehabilitative capital vested, by the 2007 film Ratatouille, in one of nature's more wretched people: the common sewer rat. This stunning one-two clobber by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky sent me reeling to the far reaches of my seat. I wasn't alone: During a critical moment in the screening I attended, one girl of about 9 bolted from the front row to find her father, who had chosen to sit at a more adult remove.
The girl was frightened, though I suppose the fact that she dragged her father right back to the front row to hold her hand might mitigate her complaint somewhat. I had to wonder whether it was the champing robot dogs and hideous rat maws that were scaring her, or if she was picking up on what lay behind them. Plenty of children's stories get good and scary; substantially fewer make blatant and extensive use of Nazi and Holocaust imagery as a means to that end. Konchalovsky borrows liberally -- almost perniciously -- from intra- and extra-cinematic worlds in this adaptation; at times The Nutcracker itself feels like the least among his influences.
Freud, Einstein, C.S. Lewis, Pinocchio, Toy Story, and the aforementioned Third Reich are all here, an inchoate hash of classical children's themes and twentieth century flashpoints. The virtuosic extent of Konchalovsky's inter-mural promiscuity would seem to be confirmed by a climactic scene in which a teardrop proves celestially powerful; despite being shot two years ago, it could have been torn from the finale of this week's Tangled.
It's December in 1920s Vienna, and a well to-do family is preparing for Christmas: Children Mary (Elle Fanning) and Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) are sussing out their presents, and father (Richard E. Grant) and mother (Yulia Visotskaya) are preparing for a night of Viennese society while the nanny (Frances de la Tour) keeps house. Dotty, dear Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane, playing Einstein with a chewy strudel accent) stops by to drop off a present for Mary -- an old dollhouse and a nutcracker in the form of a wooden toy soldier. That night Mary's devotion to her new toy brings it alive; in a less felicitous development, it is gifted with the abrasive screech of Shirley Henderson. The two flirt a bit, which is just weird, and then "NC," as he prefers to be called, introduces her to the toys downstairs, the snow fairy at the top of the Christmas tree (who looks, true to REM idiosyncrasy, just like her mother, but is not), and his issues with the royal rat family who hijacked his kingdom and turned him into a tchotchke.
It's during this early scene that things start to bode badly, for Mary and for us, beginning with the visuals. Set to a song sung by the Snow fairy -- Tchaikovsky's beloved suite is patched in here and there, only to wriggle under the poor fit of Tim Rice's lyrics -- Mary finds the courage to fly. The effect is less than breathtaking; she is essentially dancing across a floor that has been iMovie'd out. Now, I don't consider myself a CGI snob, but when one is watching a movie that insists on putting "3-D" right in the title, and the first big set piece is on a visual par with the work of the "What-What in the Butt" guy, one begins to wonder why funky glasses are required to enhance them further. By the time the song is over, Mary has solved NC's personality problem by transforming him back to human form (that of actor Charlie Rowe), the director has established his habit of adding action when in doubt, whether he is sure of how to direct it or not, and the script (written by Chris Solimine) has put the viewer on notice: Dodgy gambits ahead.
"She must be prepared for the real world!" Mary's father exclaims, tired of coddling his space cadet daughter and waking up to things like an inexplicably totaled Christmas tree. At the heart of the Nutcracker story is the idea that dreams -- waking and otherwise -- are a forum for experimentation, growth, and confrontation; to the extent that they prepare a self for the "real" world, they are the real world. Children might know that most intuitively, but certainly any enraptured movie audience knows it very well.
The suggestion of Mary's experience traveling to NC's kingdom to battle the Rat King (John Turturro in a Warhol wig, rat snout, and full set of coke nails) and Queen (de la Tour, perfectly repulsive) and their genocide against toys as a child's psychic nightmare of the coming war is not risible in itself. But Konchalovsky lacks both a plan and a gift for metaphor. The result is a supposedly demented king with no juicy pathology and therefore no traceable motivation, plus the baffling and then appalling presence of torture, goose-steppers in Nazi dress, and smoking crematoria. Somewhere in there is a little blonde girl and her dreamy princeling, but damned if I could see them through the dreck.