Review Index



This superbly mounted, if largely ignored, 1986 film version of Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet restores the terror and wonder that have been diluted by so many other modern productions of THE NUTCRACKER.

The Package
     I guess I shouldn’t be surprised this film, from the late Atlantic Releasing Corporation, is so neglected (it has yet to be released on DVD): it was directed by the great Carroll Ballard, possibly the most shamefully underrated American filmmaker. This NUTCRACKER is, like the majority of Ballard’s films (THE BLACK STALLION, NEVER CRY WOLF, FLY AWAY HOME), a kid’s movie, which partially explains why it hasn’t been taken seriously by the critical establishment. Yet it’s said to stick closer to the particulars of Tchaikovsky’s original than any other filming of the material (including the better-known 1993 version with Macaulay Culkin).
     Another noteworthy factor of this film is the production and costume design by children’s book maestro Maurice Sendak (of the immortal WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE). Also, one of the producers was Peter Locke, of THE HILLS HAVE EYES and its remake. As for the dancing, it was performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, from a production first staged at the Seattle Opera House in December of 1983.

The Story
     The young Clara is awakened from a dream on Christmas Eve to attend a family party. During the party Clara’s bratty brother breaks her beloved nutcracker, a wooden soldier with a nutcracking jaw.
     That night Clara dreams of being shrunken down to the size of a mouse and having her toys come to life around her. Among the menacing toy-monsters are soldiers and evil stuffed animals, as well as a sinister sheik and a dashing nutcracker prince, both incarnated by men from the Christmas party. They vie for Clara’s affections in an epic dance-off, and eventually the nutcracker prince wins her hand. But the sheik isn’t happy, and becomes determined to put an end to Clara’s happiness--and wake her up!

The Direction
     As befits Carroll Ballard’s other films, this one is classy and well mounted, and beautifully shot by the talented Stephen H. Burum (of RUMBLE FISH, THE UNTOUCHABLES and CARLITO’S WAY). Other productions of THE NUTCRACKER may be hipper or more exciting, but for conviction and sheer beauty this one is hard to beat.
     There are moments of shivery foreboding (the toys coming to life sequence is genuinely disquieting) and the whole thing has a dark air to it, as befits the narrative’s underlying menace and sexual suggestiveness. Be advised, though, that it is essentially a filmed play, complete with scenery situated at the edges of the stage, with the center portion left vacant for the performers to dance around on. Regarding that dancing, I’m told it’s quite impressive. I can’t say for sure, as ballet is not among my interests, but I know a good movie when I see one, and this is a good movie.

Vital Statistics

Atlantic Releasing Corporation

Director: Carroll Ballard
Producers: Willard Carroll, Donald Kushner, Peter Locke, Thomas L. White
Screenplay: Kent Stowell, Maurice Sendak
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Editing: John Nutt, Michael Silvers
Cast: Hugh Bigney, Patricia Barker, Vanessa Sharp, Wade Walthall, Russell Burnett, Laura Schwenk, Benajmin Houk, Beatrice Bassett