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.
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 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!
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.
NUTCRACKER: THE MOTION PICTURE
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