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June 6, 2014

The Nutcracker in 3D

by Franz Patrick


Nutcracker in 3D, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★

All Mary (Elle Fanning) wants for Christmas is for her family to spend time together during Christmas Eve. To the child’s disappointment, her parents (Richard E. Grant, Yuliya Vysotskaya) choose to attend the renowned Palace Ball where important people like Sigmund Freud are invited. Instead, Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane) is asked to look after Mary and Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) which is most opportune because they have not seen each other in a while. Uncle Albert has a present for the kids: a dollhouse which contains a nutcracker (voiced by Shirley Henderson), a chimpanzee (Peter Elliott), a clown (Hugh Sachs), and a drummer (Africa Nile), all of which come alive in Mary’s dreams.

Based on the screenplay by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Chris Solimine, directed by the former, watching “The Nutcracker in 3D” is like putting your hand into a bag of mixed candy, grabbing the one with an interesting shape, and hoping that it is not the kind that tastes bland. At its best, the quality is superficially mediocre while the deeper message is a storm of confusion. I liked the visuals because they are crisp, especially those set in a snowy backdrop, and I found them readily adaptable to specific moods and settings. The imagery that take place in reality and those that occur in dreams are equally delectable. However, the acting is often wooden and this is not limited to the talking CGI nutcracker who prefers to be addressed as NC.

While Fanning has undeniable charm, I found her consistently out of her depth when she is required to act against a green or blue screen. Particularly painful to watch involves a flying scene up and down a giant Christmas tree with snowflakes guiding the little girl’s flight. When she screams in delight and expresses her disbelief that flying is entirely possible, it comes across completely disingenuous—and irritating. I do not take pleasure in saying things like what I am about to say but it must be said: There is something about her expression of glee that I found unbearable—almost similar to the sound of nails scraping on a chalkboard. I wondered if children, the picture’s target audience, would buy the emotions given that they are especially sensitive to intonations.

The plot is mostly driven by the conflict between a prince (Charlie Rowe), whose soul is trapped in a nutcracker’s body, and The Rat King (John Turturro), who wishes to turn the prince’s formerly bright and merry kingdom into a Stygian kitchen of burning toys. The rats, as it turns out, are afraid of the sun and so they force the residents to burn toys in order to make a dark cloud that blocks the star. One can see it as an allegory of Nazi Germany which is reasonable because of the words used and behaviors employed in scenes that take place in Mary’s reality. The Nazis viewed the Jewish people as flawed objects—the toys—and so they were burned in giant ovens. Their ashes—the dark cloud—were seen for miles.

Although I admired the risks the filmmakers had taken, I was not convinced that the final product makes enough strong connections between Mary’s dream world and one of the darkest and shameful times in our history. I was not at all sure as to what the filmmakers’ intentions were. The risks are present but they do not go all the way. Perhaps the picture simply does not want to offend anybody. After all, it is supposed to be a movie for the whole family.

On the other hand, if the filmmakers had wanted to make a typical family fare, the interpretation of the ballet could have gone into a completely different direction without taking the path of toys being burned in a factory as children line up with their parents and looking like they were about to be killed.

And yet despite the miscalculated allegory, the film makes other missteps. For instance, I found the casting of Frances de la Tour as The Rat Queen and Vysotskaya as The Snow Fairy to be very odd. The former doubles as the caring family maid and the latter doubles as Mary’s emotionally distant mother. It might have made more sense if de la Tour had played The Snow Fairy and Vysotskaya had taken on the role of The Rat Queen. I got the impression that age was a factor in the decision because The Snow Fairy is supposed to be young and beautiful while The Rat Queen was supposed to embody the opposite. It would have been refreshing to see an old but still beautiful Snow Fairy.

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