Lying awake in bed, young Clara (voiced by Melissa Gilbert, star of Little House on the Prairie) is too excited about an impending reunion with her boy crush to go to sleep. Even after Aunt Gerda (Lurene Tuttle) recounts an especially scary story about what can happen to children that stay up past bedtime. When Clara's beloved toymaker Uncle Drosselmeyer (Christopher Lee) arrives she is delighted with his gift of a charming Nutcracker Doll. That same night Clara is attacked by a horde of nasty mice led by the terrifying two-headed Queen Morphia (Jo Anne Worley). Whereupon the sword-brandishing little Nutcracker comes magically to life and helps Clara escape. Despite Aunt Gerda reassuring her it was just a dream, the next night Clara stumbles upon a magic portal hidden inside the old grandfather clock. It transports her to a magnificent palace inside the Kingdom of the Dolls. Where she finds poor King Goodwin (Dick Van Patten) mourning his daughter the beautiful Princess Mary (Robin Haffner) who lies under a sleeping spell cast by none other than Morphia. To save Mary's life, Clara assists Franz (Roddy McDowall), the dashing if somewhat familiar-looking captain of the royal guard, on a quest that tests their courage and belief in the power of true love.
One of the more obscure films inspired by Tchaikovsky's ballet (itself drawn from E.T.A Hoffman's story), this Japanese-made stop-motion animation nonetheless lingered in the memories of those that saw it as children. Chiefly because Nutcracker Fantasy ranks up there with Dougal and the Blue Cat (1970/72) and Watership Down (1978) among the creepiest children's animated films of all time. Fans point to the deliciously dark opening sequence. It features a sinister, snaggle-toothed spectre called the Ragman (likely drinking buddies with the similarly-attired Child-Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)) invading bedrooms where children won't go to sleep and turning them into mice. Oddly, despite tapping a near-universal childhood nightmare, after this unnerving intro the Ragman never appears in the actual story.
As narrated by a grown-up Clara voiced by Michelle Lee, of The Love Bug (1969) and countless television shows and TV movies, the actual plot bears only passing resemblance to the ballet. But then most Nutcracker adaptations do. It is a haunting yet vivid candy-coloured coming of age fable about learning the value of inner beauty over shallow physical perfection. Co-writers Shintaro Tsuji (also co-producer), Eugene A. Fournier and Thomas Joachim have Uncle Drosselmeyer lament how he endeavours to imbue each of his dolls with “beautiful hearts” and personalities. Yet people only seem to want perfect-looking dolls. No doubt the message struck a chord with children learning to be comfortable in their own skin and embrace their own particular quirks and idiosyncrasies. It is a theme prevalent in a lot of Rankin-Bass animations, particularly Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Yet while often mistaken for a Rankin-Bass production, Nutcracker Fantasy was actually made by Sanrio: the company better known for flooding toy stores, stationers and clothing outlets with their kawaii-cute 'Hello Kitty' merchandise.
In the late Seventies into the Eighties Sanrio were making a concerted effort to be the next Disney studio with a slew of lushly animated feature films. Whether by accident or design many of these skewed towards the dark, with Nutcracker Fantasy joining the likes of The Mouse and His Child (1977), Ringing Bell (1978) and Fantastic Adventures of Unico (1981) as weirdly whimsical nightmare fuel. This was Sanrio's first venture into stop-motion and indeed their only effort in the medium until Hello Kitty's Stump Village thirty-seven years later. Beautifully intricate puppetry and model work feature through several stunning sequences, including a battle scene between mice and wind-up toy soldiers that evokes Suspiria (1977) of all things with its hallucinatory intensity, a lovely Waltz of the Flowers-inspired montage with cut-out paper animation, and a climactic toy parade that literally dazzles. On the other hand the languid, dreamlike pace is both a weakness and strength. The film weaves a very delicate spell that either enchants the viewer or lulls them to sleep. It is not for impatient children. Audiences in tune with its elegantly off-kilter sensibility will likely savour the touches of eccentricity and quirky humour (e.g. the scene where magicians from around the world try to wake Princess Mary) which is again very Rankin-Bass. Much like that studio's ambitious, underrated fantasy The Daydreamer (1966), Nutcracker Fantasy springs a plot twist that steers its second half down a headier, philosophical path. It evolves into a disarmingly mature rumination on the difference between saccharine fairy tale romance and true love as our likable plucky and resilient child heroine learns the value of sacrifice.
Scored with snatches of Tchaikovsky mixed with very Seventies AOR ballads, acid rock and eerie electronica, the film affords Christopher Lee fans a rare chance to hear the horror icon sing. He does so with gusto and performs multiple roles matched by a stellar ensemble cast. Evidently Nutcracker Fantasy was popular enough in Japan for Sanrio to re-release the film theatrically to mark the company's fortieth anniversary. This time featuring a dance remix of the theme song performed by super oddball J-pop phenomenon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - who, much like the movie, is an acquired taste though undeniably memorable.