The Nutcracker: The Untold Story

Finally the truth can be told. Because you know what? We have the right to know.

Not to brag or anything, but I always thought the official story behind this Nutcracker business was a bunch of bullshit. I mean, how naive can you be? And I knew the truth had to get out eventually. It was only a matter of time. Thank you, Freedom of Information Act.

Here, at last, is Tchaikovsky’s music and the associated Mouse King story (no credit for E.T.A. Hoffman) adapted into non-ballet, special-effects-laden movie form. This unexplainable Christmas fantasy mess was released theatrically in 2010 as THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D. It was directed and co-written by Andrey Konchalovskiy (RUNAWAY TRAIN, THE LION IN WINTER). I read that it was a dream project he’d tried to make for over 20 years, which would mean he started dreaming about it around the time he did TANGO & CASH. But on the making-of extra he said he’d been working on it since 1969. I wonder in which decade he lost track of why the hell he was doing it?

Elle Fanning stars as a little girl named Mary who is sort of the Alice or Dorothy character who’s transported to a fantasy world of nutcracking. She lives with her bratty, arsonist brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin), inattentive parents (Richard E. Grant and Julia Vysotskaya) and nanny (Frances de la Tour) in a big mansion, where she is visited by her beloved Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane), who sings the kids songs to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker pieces and gives Mary a dollhouse and a Napoleon nutcracker. No gifts for Max though, and everybody is surprised when he breaks the nutcracker’s jaw by stuffing too many nuts in its mouth (mafia style).

One thing I should mention about Uncle Albert: he is Albert Einstein. Or, as Lane helpfully explains on the making of featurette, “not necessarily Albert Einstein.” But he has Einstein’s hair and a ridiculous Nathan Lane approximation of his accent and sings a terrible song called “Everything is Relative” and keeps talking about his theories of relativity. It’s pretty clear that he’s supposed to be Albert Einstein, but what is less clear is why the hell would the uncle be Albert Einstein in this movie? I don’t get it.

Anyway the nutcracker, or N.C. for short (that’s the kind of writing magic you can only achieve by planning a movie for 40 years), comes to life because Mary believes in him so much. Suddenly he’s a frantic CGI character voiced by Shirley Henderson. I think they’re supposed to have a sort of a HIS GIRL FRIDAY battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth quips thing going, but it’s hard to do that between a little kid and an obnoxious cartoon character. N.C. complains that women aren’t good at military strategy, Mary says precocious things like, “Men can be so ungrateful. It’s appalling, that’s what it is!” Kids and nutcrackers say the darndest things, you know?

Realities and proportions shift like in Alice in Wonderland. N.C. seems to have grown about 3 or 4 feet taller, but then they go out into the living room and in fact maybe Mary has shrunk, because now the Christmas tree is giant and the ceiling is the sky and the dollhouse is real-house-sized compared to them. The dolls that were inside (a juggling clown, a monkey, a drummer boy) are now live action characters. The monkey is a guy in makeup, the drummer is black so he does a headspin at one point. Also he gets his head torn off by the dreads and tossed around, but luckily it re-attaches safely.

It turns out the nutcracker is actually a prince cursed to be wooden so the throne could be stolen by the Rat King, played by John Turturro in probly the only role he’ll ever do that’s arguably less dignified than being peed on by robots in the TRANSFORMERSes. But at least the character knows what he’s doing. He makes it so his enemy will always have to have nuts in his mouth.

Turturro wears a poofy white Andy Warhol wig and latex rat nose. He lives an extravagant lifestyle. He has a shark tank like Ice-T does, but he electrocutes the shark early on and then it just floats there for the rest of the movie, right side up though so it doesn’t look dead, it just looks like the puppeteer had the day off. The Rat King also has a hobby of photographing crying children, and he has some of the photos blown up huge on his wall. Some of his hench-rats fly in with metal wings and jet engines, and he says, “Ah, my loyal bat-rats!” He has a band who play for him as he sings about “Welcome to a Stygian era!” and “Rat wing policies for all!”

See, that’s the most questionable concept in the movie: the rats are like Nazis. They wear Nazi-esque uniforms and helmets, and are clearly fascists. At some point the Christmas tree has expanded into a bleak, stylized city controlled by the Rat King. The oppressed people cry and pile their dolls and stuffed animals in the streets to be taken away and ground up. There are huge propaganda murals on the walls, including one that says “DO THE RAT THING.” Both a bad pun and a reminder of how far Turturro has fallen.

The ending is as confusing as the rest. They turn the Rat King and henchmen back into rats, and Mary and N.C. (who at this point and in various parts of the movie has turned into a real boy with a totally different voice) stand on a platform pointing them out as they scurry through a crowd. The monkey chases them. “Get him!” He’s trying to stop them from getting away into the sewer… then when they do everybody immediately cheers that they’re gone, as if they weren’t trying to stop them just 1 second ago.

“That was the evil rat king, who tried to turn off our sunlight!” the Prince yells.

Is that what he was trying to do? I honestly didn’t catch that.

This is a gigantic production, with huge practical sets, crowds of hundreds of extras, makeup, puppets and the CGI nutcracker character. Some of the effects are actually kind of cool: the rat stormtroopers have mechanical “rat dogs” on chain leashes, Turturro’s ugly rat-face makeup sometimes gets a digital enhancement so he can open a huge snarling mouth, and in one scene chew through a metal wall. The monkey character is old fashioned PLANET OF THE APES style makeup but then they did sort of a BABE style animation to make him more expressive. There are motorcycles and the jetpacks and a helicopter with robotic chicken legs. Sometimes the rats are in the real world, so they’re animated characters who look like real rats except for one that I think has a Turturro-ish face and makes human gestures with his front legs.

Fanning has turned out to be a really talented child actor in SUPER 8 and SOMEWHERE. There was no room for that in this behemoth, but at the end when they make her leave the fantasy world (what, she’s only allowed to be there when it’s a fascist nightmare?), she cries, and then it turns into a smile, and it’s a sign of how good she’ll be, I think.

I don’t know exactly where the line is drawn between a horrible mess like this and a good one. I like the weirdness of it, and alot of the elements in concept wouldn’t necessarily have to be bad. You could describe the different parts that make up RETURN TO OZ (animal made out of couch and moose head, rock monster, guys with wheels for feet) and I don’ t think it would sound any better or worse than the ones in NUTCRACKER. But somehow it works better as a creepy children’s fantasy. This feels more like SUPER MARIO BROTHERS with its elaborate dystopian world, human-animal-tyrant, broad acting in service of non-jokes, unclear logic or purpose. And SUPER MARIO even had Richard Edson, who played Turturro’s brother in DO THE RIGHT THING. What’s going on here?

Is it possible that THE NUTCRACKER 3D was almost good? THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN is also a big out of control mess about a little girl lost in a fantasy world, and it’s similarly exhausting, but it’s great. I guess it just comes down to taste. The designs are better. The atmosphere is more consistent. The ideas fit together better. The characters are more fantastical, less annoying. It doesn’t have Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein singing a song to a famous piece of music that doesn’t need any damn words.

I don’t know, maybe this should’ve been my submission to the Worst Holiday Movies of All Time. But I don’t regret watching it.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s another great example of how well lyrics go with the Nutcracker suite:

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 22nd, 2012 at 3:16 am and is filed under Family, Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story”

  1. For all intents & purposes, NUT CRACKER kinda semi-translates to both:
    1.) Crazy white bigot, and…
    2.) Ball buster.
    Probably neither of which Tchaikovsky had in mind when he composed the music. Which remains superlative.

  2. Thanks for the shout-outs to BARON MUNCHAUSEN and the great RETURN TO OZ. A lot more people need to know about RETURN TO OZ.

  3. I caught this on the television late at night, ’bout a month ago. Right at the bit where Turturro is (literally) chewing the scenery. Very odd. Like a fever dream except people are singing weird lyrics to Tchaikovsky tunes… Or is that what a fever dream really is? Peculiar, at any rate.

  4. I believe this was the one that Ebert recounted how some great-grandmother took four generations of her family to go see it in 3-D (cost her hundreds of dollars), only to not know that the movie involved the Holocaust and that it was revoltingly bad and she wrote this angry letter to AP’s Christy Lemire, which she then passed along to Ebert.

    That anecdote alone makes this movie’s existence worth it.

  5. Jam; “Turturro is (literally) chewing the scenery?” Literally?

  6. RETURN TO OZ is great

    it is bad that I kinda like SUPER MARIO BROTHERS due to how bugfuck weird it is?

  7. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between this and HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, GOLDEN COMPASS or NARNIA, but some are considered awesome. It’s no LABYRINTH or NEVERENDING STORY, that’s for sure. MUNCHAUSEN is a good call, also way better.

    I guess that’s what moderates feel like when I complain about UNKNOWN vs TAKEN or every mainstream movie vs UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING. If you love it then it’s got to measure up.

  8. Whenever a respected actor goes the PayPal route for his or her projects I wonder if they’re having a rough time in other parts in their life. Divorce, a sickness in the family, finances wiped out in a ponzi scheme–or the flip side; they’re doing a DeNiro to finance a foundation that helps those most in need. There are so many reasons, so many validating, oh I get why he did that, reasons for why people take shit jobs, that I always look to see what else may be going in.

    But on Turturo I get nothing. Zippo. Maybe the guy just likes money. Which is fine, except it hurts to see Barton Fink turning into a bit of a . . . Oh hell, I can’t bring myself to say it.

  9. Griff, I like SUPER MARIO BROS. I think Hopkins, Hooper, Stevens and Edson are all very entertaining in it, I think it’s pretty funny and the effects are clever and well used. Yes, yes, I know someone will say nostalgia and blah, blah, and yeah, fair cop, but honestly last time I saw it I found it much more entertaining than BUCKAROO BANZAI as far as that sort of thing goes.

  10. What’s cool about Return to Oz is that it is the only film made by the Walter Murch. A famous editor and sound-mixer who cut The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Talented Mr Ripley and several other great films. He also restored Touch of Evil.

    Imagine only writing and directing one film in your career and choosing to make the sequel to The Wizard of Oz!

  11. Coincidentally, this was on TV last night when I got home from a Christmas party. I made it through about 30 seconds of Nathan Lane singing before I had to turn it off. I can usually enjoy a bad movie, but this one felt unbearable to me. I’m very impressed with anyone who could make it through. And I’m even more impressed, Vern, that you could analyze it.

  12. Henry – RETURN TO OZ is quite a good movie. Too bad it was a sequel to an institutionalized classic (i.e. bulletproof to serious criticism) and thus you’re pretty much fucked before you even started. Not to mention parents in the 80s were pussies about what was right or not right for their kids to watch.

  13. “I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between this and HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, GOLDEN COMPASS or NARNIA, but some are considered awesome.”

    Fred – This sort of disconnect in telling apart movies reminds me of critics who routinely swipe all actioneers as cut from the same cloth.

    We know that’s not obviously true.

  14. PEGSMAN: Yeah. Fanning is hiding in a locker or something and then Turturro CHEWS through the door to get to her with his elongated CGI teeth. Arresting enough that I watched the next ten minutes hoping for something equally batshit, but it didn’t happen.

    RETURN TO OZ is great. Much prefer it to the the Judy Garland one.

  15. I was allowed to watch some freaky stuff as a kid, so I got to see Return to Oz in the theatre. The entire movie probably scarred me for life, but it’s so good I can forgive the headless woman nightmares it gave me.

    This movie, though, just didn’t work for me. I speak as a fan of fucked-up “family” movies and fantasy films and as a huge fan of anything Nutcracker. (Is there a Nutcracker horror film? I would watch something in the style of Leprechaun or Gingerdead Man.) I couldn’t get through the first 20 minutes. But this review makes me want to watch Munchhausen again.

    And I like Super Mario Bros. it’s a fantastic mess of a movie!

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