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Thursday, December 14, 2017


I don't remember ever sitting down and watching a production of Tchaikovsky’s classic musical fantasy (derived from the E.T.A. Hoffmann story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”) all the way through, so I was surprised to find that the 1986 screen adaptation, NUTCRACKER, THE MOTION PICTURE (Olive Films), is a lot less Christmassy than I imagined. 

It's also less skillfully rendered than I expected from director Carroll Ballard, who gave us the exquisite THE BLACK STALLION as well as NEVER CRY WOLF.  I think this is because Ballard excelled at more natural, realistic storytelling (albeit through a beautifully artistic eye) and was out of his element taking on a stagey ballet with an almost non-linear storyline that's told through music and dance.

He made a sort of metaphorical dance out of the boy and the horse getting to know and love each other in THE BLACK STALLION, and it was beautiful. Here, he's a bit at a loss as to how to shoot literal dance sequences, often editing a bunch of tight shots together in rapid succession to convey movement but losing the effect of the group choreography in doing so.

These sequences are at their best during the moments when Ballard pulls back and gives us a nice, wide master shot of the dancers doing their thing. Yet this is where his talent as a visual film artist is least utilized and the film is at its most stagey and uncinematic.  Throughout NUTCRACKER, THE MOTION PICTURE this uneasy juxtaposition of the cinematic and the theatrical seldom makes for a pleasing blend.

Indeed, I often found myself zoning out and simply enjoying Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music, rendered beautifully by the London Symphony Orchestra, as the images played out before me.  I found myself recognizing most of these oft-heard musical themes and savoring each one anew, gifts of the composer's genius that keep on giving across the centuries.

The story proper concerns a young girl named Clara (Vanessa Sharp) attending her parents' opulent Christmas party and hoping that finally this year she'll be old enough to join in the dance.  She especially looks forward to seeing her extremely eccentric godfather Herr Drosselmeier (Hugh Bigney), a clockmaker who never fails to bring the most special, magical gifts that he has fashioned himself.

This year Drosselmeier has outdone himself by building a toy castle in which one might actually see tiny figures dancing inside.  As an older Clara tells us in voiceover, he has a tendency to invade her dreams somehow, turning them into frightening but strangely wonderful nightmares.  This night is no different, and Clara's dream sleep becomes a wondrous journey through the magic castle and then into exotic foreign lands with the handsome Nutcracker Prince (Wade Walthall).

The opening act of the film contains the only real Christmas atmosphere, the rest being Clara's frightening encounter with some toy figures come to overgrown life (including production designer Maurice Sendak's grotesque animal creations) and then the balletic adventures of Clara's grown-up fantasy self, played by lissome ballet dancer Patricia Barker, in a sort of "Arabian Nights" world with Drosselmeier as an evil sheik or something. 

Barker bears a close resemblance to the younger Clara and is a pleasing surrogate figure with ample balletic skills.  It's nice watching her and the Nutcracker Prince during their elegant specialty numbers as well as a "snowflake" dance by members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

I prefer these moments to the more chaotic ones with too many toy soldiers, anthropomorphic animals, and other characters leaping about in a confusing blur of closeups and rapid editing.  The story finally comes to a climax of sorts (including a noticeably bad flying effect) which I actually found rather intriguing--it really does end the way nightmares often do, and Clara, awaking with a start, seems well pleased by her odd godfather's most unusual gift.

NUTCRACKER, THE MOTION PICTURE will please fans of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music even if they only listen to it. Those who look at it as well may find the images to be as much a mixed bag as the one from which Herr Drosselmeier produces his eclectic array of homemade Christmas gifts.  Try as he might, director Ballard just never quite gets a handle on this one. 

Buy it at Olive Films

YEAR: 1986
LANGUAGE: ENGLISH (with optional English subtitles)
VIDEO: 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio; COLOR

PREBOOK:        12/05/17
STREET:           12/12/17

CAT:                 OF1386
UPC:       887090138611
SRP:                 $14.95

CAT:                 OF1387
UPC:       887090138710
SRP:                 $29.95


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