Nine-year-old Mary (Elle Fanning) lives in 1920s Vienna in a home filled with lovely things, yet is lonely and neglected by her well meaning but self-absorbed Mother (Yuliya Visotskaya) and Father (Richard E. Grant). On Christmas Eve, Mary's beloved Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane) brings her the gift of a wooden Nutcracker doll. That night Mary's imagination brings the doll to life. Introducing himself as 'N.C.' (voiced by Shirley Henderson), he takes Mary on a wondrous journey through a magical fairy world where toys assume human form and everything appears ten times larger. But danger lurks. For as Mary learns from the Snow Fairy (Yuliya Visotskaya in a second role), N.C. is really a prince under an evil spell and their world is threatened by an army of toothy rat creatures led by the flamboyant Rat King (John Turturro in rodent makeup with bizarre Andy Warhol hair!).
As a lifelong fan of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet yours truly is somewhat predisposed to loving almost any screen adaptation of this timeless Christmas fantasy. Readers familiar with my reviews of things like The Blue Bird (1940) or Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (2011) are likely also aware of my fondness for flawed children's movies everyone else seems to loathe. Which is my half-heartedly apologetic way of contextualizing my inexplicable fondness for The Nutcracker in 3-D, a film that received a severe drubbing from almost everyone who saw it. In some ways it is easy to see why. Yet many aspects of this British-Hungarian co-production are beautifully crafted. It has a sparkling lead in the winsome young Elle Fanning and pulls off several visual coups that are truly poetic and magical.
Konchalovsky, an eclectic auteur with a filmography encompassing acclaimed art-house fare like Uncle Vanya (1971), House of Fools (2002) (again with wife and frequent leading lady Yuliya Visotskaya) and the widely lauded action thriller Runaway Train (1985) as well as the endearingly trashy Sylvester Stallone-Kurt Russell buddy cop actioner Tango & Cash (1989), unwisely opts not to include any ballet. Instead The Nutcracker in 3-D, also known as The Nutcracker: The Untold Story or alternatively Andrei Konchalovsky's The Nutcracker, serves up a wildly eccentric steam-punk fantasy take on E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story with Tim Rice putting words to Tchaikovsky's music. It is a sumptuous production, beautifully lit and designed with allusions to art deco, Gustav Klimt and the glowing Christmas panoramas of our childhood dreams, counterbalanced by the far darker realm of the Rat King where Rat Storm-troopers styled like Nazis terrorize townsfolk with robot war machines and stage a mass burning of children's toys.
Yet the film suffers from an odd story structure that is never certain what it is really all about. Is it a young girl's coming of age story? An ode to the importance of childhood imagination? A holocaust allegory wherein the overtly fascistic Rat Army anticipate the rise of Adolf Hitler to wash away this cosy Christmas card vision of Europe? Or perhaps an elaborate, frankly impenetrable allusion to Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity as evidenced by Nathan Lane's musical ode to E=MC² set to the strains of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. No jokes please. Why exactly is Lane playing someone who looks and sounds like Einstein but supposedly isn't Einstein? These are among many questions Konchalovsky blithely opts to ignore, choosing instead to fling any array of promising if wildly eccentric ideas into the air before taking shot with his imaginary blunderbuss.
Konchalovsky glides his camera through some spellbinding sequences that leave the viewer feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. The journey up the giant Christmas tree past glittering baubles and dancing decorations proves genuinely wondrous while the snowflake ballet where Mary dances with fairies through the air in the form of twirling, cascading pixie dust is utterly enchanting and a a sterling example of computer graphics used creatively and poetically. Yet like too many modern musicals, the film seems oddly uncomfortable with being a musical. Konchalovsky seems to have little confidence in his music. His bizarre editing choices disrupt the flow, cutting away from dance sequences or curtailing a song before it is over. The songs are admittedly hit and miss. Tchaikovsky's music is enchanting enough without Tim Rice's cheesy lyrics although Elle Fanning's solo is lovely and the Dixieland jazz number with the eccentrically garbed John Turturro dancing up a storm is rather memorable. The allusions to Fascism, and to an extent Communism too, prove potent and strange with impressively nightmarish images like the giant rat skyscraper erupting out of the sewers or rat storm-troopers flying jet-packs or a helicopter with legs, plus a freaky moment with Mary cowering from the Rat King's CGI fangs liable to scare some younger viewers.
Alongside the darkness the film has moments of wonder. Chief among them adorable Elle Fanning giving an intelligent, emotive performance as child heroine Mary. Her winning smile lights up the screen, she sings well and never once falters in conveying sincerity, no matter how strange things get. It is worth watching the film just for Elle's delightfully goofy dance throughout Nathan Lane's opening musical number. Equally charming is the titular Nutcracker on which the animators skilfully emphasize its quirky physicality. Charlie Rowe is also very good as N.C.'s human incarnation. One highly recommends the making of documentary included on the DVD. It offers a fascinating insight into the effort and artistry on the part of the production crew that makes The Nutcracker, while undeniably flawed, uniquely watchable with an oddball imagination that is often inspiring.