At the elementary school I attended it was a tradition that the third grade classes presented a production of The Nutcracker each year. No, it’s wasn’t the ballet, it was just a simple play. There were kids who played candy canes, snowflakes, sugar plum fairies, and all the various ethnic dancers. I ended up with one of the parts that all the boys coveted…I was a mouse! We got to fight the tin soldiers with cardboard swords. It was awesome! Granted, though, our production didn’t quite have the production value of our film today, which attempts to bring to the screen a ballet production of the story. With direction by The Black Stallion’s Carroll Ballard and story input from Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak it’s 1986’s Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.
The story concerns an adolescent girl named Clara (Vanessa Sharp) who is given an intricate toy castle from her creepy toymaker uncle Drosselmeyer (Hugh Bigney) for Christmas. Inside are dancing figures that come to life, but she soon becomes more entranced by a nutcracker figure that falls off the Christmas tree. However, her brother Fritz soon breaks the little soldier figure. Later that night, strange things start to happen in the girls’ living room as a battle rages between the nutcracker and his army of tin soldiers and a group of nasty mice.
After the battle is won, the nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince (Wad Walthall), and Clara transforms into a more shapely adult version of herself (Patricia Barker). The couple then board a boat and sail off to a mystical kingdom ruled by a strange Pasha (also Hugh Bigney) who tries to impress Clara with an assortment of exotic dancers in an attempt to woo her away from her nutcracker prince.
Now, this movie is at its core a filmed version of a stage production. The Pacific Northwest Ballet is the company putting on the production. The choreography, staging, and sets are all quite lovely. However, I don’t know that director Ballard really does that much to elevate this to a more cinematic level. Perhaps I’m slightly biased for having just watched the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense recently. That is another “stage production” brought to the screen, but Jonathan Demme’s camera is used so creatively in that particular film. Here I feel like Ballard has about half a dozen shots that he cycles through as the film progresses. Sure, the dancing on its own is wonderful, but it’s not captured in a very awe inspiring way.
One thing I found very intriguing about this version of the Nutcracker is that it goes to some strange places that I don’t remember seeing in other versions of this material. At various points in the film there is narration by Julie Harris, as the voice of an adult Clara. To put it simply, this narration made me more than a little bit uncomfortable. It seems to suggest a somewhat inappropriate dynamic between the young Clara and her bizarre toymaking uncle. This is heightened by the way Hugh Bigney plays Drosselmeyer as a leering creep. Things are taken to an even more uncomfortable level when later in the production the Pasha is clearly supposed to be Drosselmeyer in a turban trying to get busy with the now womanly Clara. All this will surely go over the heads of most of the kids in the audience, but mom and dad may squirm a bit.
I guess this film is one that is a more satisfying if you don’t try to go too deep with it. As I said before, the dancing is beautifully done. Patricia Barker was especially enchanting with her interpretation of the material. Taking the kiddos to an actual ballet production can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, so this is a perfectly fine way to experience this sort of production with the youngsters. However, if you let this film sink into some of the darker corners of your brain it can be a bit more disturbing than you may want in your average Christmas family movie. It certainly goes to some places that my third grade production of the Nutrcracker never went.
Note: Nutcracker: The Motion Picture was recently released on DVD and BluRay by our friends at Olive Films. Big thanks to them for letting us check out the film.