The Nutcracker in 3D (2009, Freestyle Releasing)

Rewind Review: The Nutcracker in 3D

The Nutcracker in 3D as conceptualized by Andrey Konchaloskiy is a rather strange beast indeed. It’s the kind of film that is impossible to stop watching because despite all that you might have to say against it there is some element of charm, ambition, and brashness that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Perhaps it is a symptom of the era of filmmaking we are currently living in, there are far too many “play it safe” moves made in film today from sequels, to remakes and generic storytelling. Now granted The Nutcracker has been told over and over again, however, none of them ever quite like this and that’s what you end up taking away from this film, like it or not, is a bold attempt at doing something truly unique and different.

What makes this story, or this retelling thereof, so unique? It is the spin placed on everything in this tale. It becomes a historical mishmash in which suddenly Albert Einstein is the children’s uncle, there is talk of Freudian psychology and of course the Rat King and his Kingdom are none other than the Nazis. Yet flying in this face of this seemingly are exotic flying machines and other-worldly motorcycles. Just to have the audacity to go and mix things that ought not necessarily mix is one thing but it goes further.

To use Tchaikovsky’s music extensively is to be expected and nearly mandatory. Whether or not your interpretation involves any form of dance or not his music has become much more synonymous with this story than E.T.A. Hoffman’s writing ever was. However, to add lyrics to his music is a decision that is dubious at best. Hearing that it is Tim Rice writing those lyrics gives you some hope but sadly they are some of the poorest most trite I’ve heard him compose and furthermore they rarely really work. It’s difficult to shoehorn lyrics into a symphonic score and this proves it. What makes the musical experience of this film even more frustrating is that there are parts in which you see songs that do kind of work and you wonder why all can’t but what makes it more frustrating is it needn’t be. There’s just something about this story, told as it is, that doesn’t make it conducive to music.

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The performances show the kind of inconsistency that marks this film. There are those who leave you scratching your head and those that make it worth it. Amongst the head-scratchers is Nathan Lane. Why he was needed to barely sing in in one of the worst accents I’ve ever heard is beyond me. In the middle of the road is Frances de la Tour as the Rat Queen, her over-the-top insanity does grow on you as the tone of this film makes itself known. Making the film stay afloat are Elle Fanning as Mary and Charlie Rowe as The Prince, who is all too frequently absent because as the Nutcracker he is replaced by the voice of Shirley Henderson, who is incapable of sounding like anything other than Moaning Myrtle frrom the Harry Potter films. Her inability to mimic a boy’s voice not only brings this casting decision in question but made those portions of the film hard to bear.

What must be pointed out is that in terms of practicality this film is fantastic meaning in as many places where it could get shot practically it is. The rat-people wore prosthetics, there were many sets built and extras. The only things which were computer generated was what absolutely had to be which was nice to see.
The CGI when used is very effective because it is given more of chance to thrive by being surrounded by mostly real elements, making blending easier. To continue the art direction theme the costuming was also great at being both historically accurate but creative where they were allowed to be which is a nice and rare mix.

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It is not only the technical that works in this film, that is merely the most consistent element. As odd as the story is, even being rife with Nazi-symbolism, it does find an odd consistency in symbols and narrative flow such that production concerns and decisions in casting can be temporarily ignored and the story can hit you.

Perhaps the best example of this a scene where Max (Aaron Michael Drozin), the younger brother, discovers that despite being recruited by the Rat King (John  Turturro) he doesn’t want to destroy toys anymore. He lets out one of the better and realistic cries you’re likely to hear. It’s like something out of Disney’s Robin Hood in its authenticity.

As for the 3D it falls this far down in the pecking order because it truly is one of the more ineffectual jobs I’ve seen since it came back in vogue. There is little to no value added due to the fact that it’s in 3D. The image is clearer and sharper than many but the trade off is that there isn’t a tremendous amount of depth outward or inward added.

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It’s a film that always has a sense of humor about it despite that you can call some of its decisions into question. It is a film that absolutely screams to be seen because it refuses to conform and it is likely to leave very few on the fence and that’s the most we can ask for, and the best kind of movie whether you like it or not, and for that I thank the makers of The Nutcracker in 3D.

5/10

Short Film Saturday: Mixtape and Disco

Disco (UK Film Council/ Virgin Media Shorts/ 2 AM Productions)

Below you will find video links to two short films by Luke Snellin. The first, Mixtape, proves just how little time you need to tell a complete and affecting tale and that’s part of why it was nominated for a BAFTA award.

The second is a companion piece which came out the following year called Disco. They both feature a similar core group of actors and a thematic similarity of young love. Essentially, my reaction to having seen Disco was it was precisely what you’d want it to be after having seen Mixtape.

Disco expands the story from a first flirtatious romance to a triangle and being tongue-tied. Without over-explaining I also want to point out you may know some of the cast members here which help make the film what it is: Bill Miler (X-Men: First Class, Is Anybody There? and Son of Rambo), Charlie Rowe (Neverland and The Nutcracker in 3D) Lil Woods (Nanny McPhee Returns) and Izzy Meikle-Small will appear in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Snellin’s work in both these films is superb, so without much further ado enjoy…

Mixtape

Disco

Cinematic Battle of the Nutcrackers

Every year for the past 5 years Ovation TV has a Battle of the Nutcracker’s wherein they play 5 different versions (rotating some out annually) of the ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s most renowned work. While I definitely qualify myself as an enthusiast rather than a savant of dance, this is a piece I know well enough such that I find it interesting to watch the different versions and pick a favorite.

Now within the ballet there are many variations for while Tchaikovsky’s music is the standard each choreographer has their signature while it was Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov who originally choreographed it, it’s perhaps Balanchine’s that’s most well known.

What’s most interesting to me about this “competition” where the viewers are invited to vote for their favorites is that it gets me thinking about adaptation. One could do quite a lengthy case study on The Nutcracker alone. While there are many either “filmed ballets” or cinematic versions based on Tchaikovsky there are many based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Just the fact that you have these two available sources available to freely adapt makes this quite a notable story.

However, a narrative as flexible as this wouldn’t suffice for a post for one could argue that “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft are more malleable pieces of fiction based on the films they’ve spurned. What makes The Nutcracker a unique tale, is not only the fact that I personally would put it on a list of ‘The Great Stories’ meaning classic narratives I could watch re-interpreted any number of ways but also the fact that it does have two potential origins as a source material either in literature or in dance.

In honor of this great story and the novel idea by Ovation I thought it’d be good to have some suggested Nutcracker-related film viewing for the holiday season.

Here are perhaps the three most well-known (the ones I’ve seen) cinematic versions to get you started.

The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)

The Nutcracker in 3D (2009, Freestyle Releasing)

During its all too brief cinematic run it was referred to as The Nutcracker in 3D. Now with 3D being the cinematic boogeyman du jour home video is the way to check this film out. I won’t give too much away but this version is most definitely different and based on the story rather than the ballet. This allows the storytellers to have a lot of latitude and there are few if any safe decisions and this film will likely cause divisive reactions all around. Partially musical and very allegorical it’s a film that refuses to be ignored. It also features Elle Fanning (Super 8, We Bought a Zoo) and Charlie Rowe (Neverland).

Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (Disney)

If you’re one who prefers your references and adaptations a bit more oblique then you need look no further than Disney’s pet project Fantasia. Along with many numbers from The Nutcracker you will of course see interpretations of may other classical pieces. This film is definitely all about Tchaikovsky’s music rather than the ballet though there is dancing too as you may well know.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993)

Macaulay Culkin and Jessica Lynn Cohen in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (Warner Bros.)

This was the first place I was able to complete viewing the complete story of The Nutcracker ballet. My first attempt to view it live at Lincoln Center was interrupted halfway through. There are a few things that are interesting about this film not the least of which is that you have within it an encapsulation of George Balanchine’s choreography. You also have the fine narration of Kevin Kline. However, of course, what most will note is that it features Macaulay Culkin in the lead. The only major alteration is that the choreography, which for the nephew/nutcracker is rather minimal is diminished further here. While some may not even know this film even exists you might be further surprised to learn that this film is really perhaps the biggest power play Kit Culkin, Macaulay’s father and perhaps the most notorious stage parent in modern times, ever pulled off. Macaulay’s participation in The Nutcracker was really a case of living vicariously through your child. Though he speaks of it earnestly now of his distaste for the project it really doesn’t translate very much on film. Furthermore, Kit tried to influence the final cut of the film removing said narration and when it wouldn’t happen Culkin didn’t publicize the film so it was another Nutcracker box office bomb.

The Ovation block certainly made me want to look for other versions on film and I hope you enjoy these as well as seeking out others.