“I wanted to make a film for children, one that they will show to their children and so on. Something like “Mary Poppins” or “Bambi” that survive generations, because they talk about fundamentals of human life.” — Andrei Konchalovsky on the red carpet for “The Nutcracker 3D”
So says director Andrei Konchalovsky (and also writer of “Andrei Rublev” and helmer of “Tango and Cash“) with a soft spoken kindness that exudes a grandfather-like love for children. Unfortunately, it is this caring nature that bore the abomination that is “Nutcracker 3D,” and all the goodwill in the world could never make this a decent picture.
At first, the film teases. It opens on a beautiful town square, featuring happy families ice skating to the titular song by Tchaikovsky, played by an orchestra set on an open bus. It’s elegant and charming, and for a moment the bat-shit trailer is forgotten and it convinces that this may actually be a legitimate Christmas movie. Quickly moving on, introduced are an aristocratic family (the Father played by Richard E. Grant, the Mother, Yuliya Vysotskaya) preparing to go to an important social event for the holiday. Young Mary (Elle Fanning) is disappointed to learn of this outing; she’s sick of tending to her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) and the grand lifestyle her family lives in has left her feeling rather empty. Who better to cheer her up than Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane, channeling Einstein for reasons unknown), bearing gifts and an eclectic behavior that the picture, even at this point, needs desperately. The young girl receives a very special present — a nutcracker, named NC. After a quick snafu involving a broken toy jaw and a minor sibling fight, the kids are rushed to bed (but not before a song, lead by Lane, devoid of both energy and any semblance of a hook) and Mary prepares herself for a disappointing holiday.
Or so she thinks. Later that night, our protagonist is awakened by her nutcracker (now fully animated in Playstation 1-worthy CG) who, after a few slapsticky gags that would make even the most shameful sitcom actor blush, escorts her to the living room. Magically, the room transforms: the miniature toy house under their tree is now the size of a real one, the toys occupying the home are now alive (complete with zero personality), and the Christmas tree is now the scale of the Empire State Building. This introduction of the tree is a perfect opportunity to reel the audience back in and exploit the 3D effects to the max, but Konchalovsky avoids this. Instead, he covers it flatly, eschewing any sense of enamor that the characters have and that the audience should have. Quick to greet the two is the Snow Fairy (Vysotskaya again), line reading performance and vapid song in tow, who transports the two up to the very top of the tree. It is here that NC reveals himself to be under a curse, his true identity being a prince of a nearby kingdom. Sensing a great power in her, he recruits her along with the living toys (monkey, clown, drummer boy) to overthrow the Rat King (John Turturro), who has overtaken his land and reigns with tyranny.
Finally things pick up, but most of the damage has already been done. What should have been a quick 15-20 minutes clocks in at about 30 and feels around 60. The beginning is where the film is at its worst, offering stale scenes with such a slow pace that, without the music, would make the tone seem intentionally uncomfortable. Scenes just don’t move like they should, they weigh heavily without any sort of electricity or charm. There’s also musical accompaniment in nearly every moment, whether it be part of the score or another dreadful musical interlude. Aside from the sung parts, the score itself does its best, adding some pizazz to dead scenes and keeps the film’s pulse ticking. It may be manipulation at its worst, but one could only wonder how much of a chore the film could’ve been with a more sporadic score.
The kingdom presents itself, with the mighty Rat Fortress emerging from the ground. This is one of the few times the animation truly impresses, with the stronghold seeming like something out of an early Terry Gilliam film. Turturro’s character becomes more prominent, and boy does he try his best to be cartoonishly villainous and attention grabbing. It doesn’t work, as the entire rest of the movie pulls him back down to half-assed territory: chase sequences have zero thrill and are shot in close ups for their entirety, musical numbers usually consist of a character meandering around rather than being vivacious, and comic relief usually involves probably the dullest fat clown in the history of fat clowns. The latter is so bad that he instills a desire for ICP’s Violent J instead, and no one should ever have to feel that way for any reason.
To give some credit where credit is due, “Nutcracker 3D” refrains from bullshit 3D usage, proving that the filmmaker has some class. Never does anything purposely go out of its way to pop out of the screen. That said, there are times, such as the aforementioned introduction of the gigantic Christmas tree, where the absence of 3D visualization is kind of baffling. It’s used sporadically and it’s never forced, but there’s also zero astounding or noteworthy moments that warrant wearing annoying glasses for an hour and a half.
Just about the only interesting thing the film has to offer is how bleak the Rat takeover is. The town becomes a slum under their dictatorship, with citizens lined up and forced to burn their toys. Smoke from the toys cloud the sky, blocking the sun and giving the entire area a depressing grayish tone. Building walls are littered with propaganda encouraging the townspeople to partake in “Ratrification,” which would turn them into rats, and Turturro’s favorite fortress room’s décor involves huge b&w prints of children crying. It’s dark as all hell and almost seems like some sort of allusion to Nazi Germany, or maybe even the USSR at its worst. Whether that has a place in a kids movie is debatable, but its mere inclusion shows some sort of intentional thought and depth unseen in the rest of the movie.
Taken as an adult, there’s no chance that a parent will like this. It’s not smart, it’s not funny, and it feels like an eternity — Nathan Lane and John Turturro’s winks aren’t enough to keep even the most patient entertained. This is all moot, though – parents will take their children if they want to see it and brave through whatever it is. Will kids want to see it, and will they enjoy it? It’s really hard to pin down what the youth will like, ever, and for some proof, do yourself a favor and YouTube old cartoons that used to be part of your daily activities. Without naming names, chances are they’re going to be pretty unbearable. That said, younger audiences will likely find little to latch onto, finding problems in the same exact areas adults would and likely to find it just as dull. As a personal note, one of the four times the children in this writer’s audience laughed was when another critic ran across the front row towards the bathroom, and it was the most collective laugh of the whole night.
When the trailer first arrived, the Internet enjoyed a collective “WTF,” unable to decide if this bizarre concoction would either be self-aware insanity, so-bad-it’s-good earnestness, or just completely abysmal. Unfortunately it’s the latter, and anyone looking for some sort of entertainment best look elsewhere. [D-]