Enjoying the dancing and festivities at her parents' Christmas party young Clara (Vanessa Sharp) is both excited and unnerved at the arrival of her godfather, Herr Drosselmeier (Hugh Bigney), the sprightly if slightly sinister inventor of weird and wonderful toys. To Clara's delight Drosselmeier presents her with a wooden Nutcracker doll. He enchants her with the tale of how it was once a handsome prince now under a spell. Unfortunately Clara's bratty brother Fritz (Russell Burnett), breaks the Nutcracker's jaw. That night Clara dreams her beloved Nutcracker comes to life as a handsome prince (Wade Walthall) to do battle with the terrible Mouse King and his army of mice. Thereafter the Nutcracker Prince leads Clara on a magical journey behind her Christmas tree to the enchanted Candy Kingdom.
Much like the later adaptation of George Ballanchine's Nutcracker (1993) with Macaulay Culkin, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture captures a specific production of the Tchaikovsky ballet on film. In this instance a version first staged by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company in 1983. A huge critical and popular success on the stage, the PNBC version was re-staged in Seattle on an annual basis until 2015 when the company opted to stage Ballanchine's version instead. Kent Stowell's production had the distinction of costume and set designs by legendary children's writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are fame. Ironically Sendak was no fan of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story and insisted on refashioning the plot into something more compelling at least on a psychological level.
After watching a performance of the PNBC ballet with his wife and daughter Carroll Ballard was inspired to adapt the Stowell-Sendak production as a feature film. Ballard had form as a maker of fine family films, e.g. The Black Stallion (1979), Never Cry Wolf (1983) and later Fly Away Home (1996), but Nutcracker: The Motion Picture drew criticism from ballet purists over his editing and failed to engage a mass audience. Which was perhaps inevitable given ballet films are traditionally a niche genre. Nonetheless Ballard's film is beautiful to behold. Sumptuous photography combined with Sendak's evocative designs conjures a charming and vivid storybook world though the film treads a fine line between candy-coloured whimsy and more nightmarish psychological fable reminiscent of the subversive fairytales of Angela Carter whose work reached the screen in The Company of Wolves (1984). Specifically the prepubescent heroine's simultaneous repulsion and erotic fascination with the creepy yet beguiling Herr Drosselmeier. Interestingly Ballard claimed he wanted to soften the latter away from a 'dirty old man' into a more sympathetic figure. Yet one can't help but squirm uncomfortably at each close-up when Drosselmeier leers longingly at Clara whose name was altered from the original Marie for some reason. It is implied throughout Drosselmeier aims to either seduce Clara - who, according to her own narration performed by Julie Harris, is both scared and excited – or else entrap her in a world of her own girlish fantasies as some sort of twisted 'punishment' for inflaming yet spurning his desires.
At heart The Nutcracker is a prepubescent girl's fantasy. Entranced by a world of grownup romance and impatient to come of age, Clara envisions herself in a dream realm where a handsome prince and powerful sorcerer duel for her affections. Fortunately for the more romantic sequences twelve-year old dancer Vanessa Sharp morphs into full-blown womanly ballerina Patricia Barker. Sendak's set designs expand the core concept of worlds within worlds. The entire film takes place on stage seemingly animated by Drosselmeier as a means to intrude on Clara's dream. Told you he was creepy. Yet the characters also repeatedly peer into doll's houses where toys come to life or delve into dream realms to interact with denizens of the next layer or reality. It goes without saying that the dancing is excellent throughout and Sendak's remarkable transforming sets yield some impressively surreal set-pieces (famed stop-motion animator Henry Selick directed second unit). If Ballard's film does not transcend its stage origins it does its job as a lasting record of one of the great American ballet productions.