Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?
Who thought, OK, let's take a classic tale like "The Nutcracker," a holiday favorite that families have enjoyed together for over a century, turn it into a movie, convert it into 3-D, write lyrics to accompany Tchaikovsky's beloved music, then twist the plot to include an oppressive, fascist society reminiscent of Nazi Germany, complete with a Hitler figure and uniform-clad minions?
It boggles the mind, but that's what you get in "The Nutcracker in 3-D," which seems too weird and dark for children - and not in an intriguing, artistic way like "Bambi" or "Fantasia" - but won't entertain adults, either.
Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky has said he's spent the past 20 years working to bring "The Nutcracker" to the screen. Seeing the result makes you wish he'd devoted all that time and effort to a more worthwhile endeavor. Pointing a camera at the New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine's version of "The Nutcracker" would have been far preferable - then again, so would videotaping a bunch of 9-year-old aspiring ballerinas doing it.
This isn't exactly a ballet on film. This is more like a live-action hodgepodge in which the characters sporadically burst into awkward song and dance. There is some choreography to go along with "Waltz of the Flowers," though it's performed by figures made out of computer-generated snowflakes whose moves are so fuzzy, it's impossible to determine what they're doing. At one point, there's a sparkly Snow Fairy who ice skates, but that's not even enjoyable in a kitschy kind of way.
At the center of it all, as in the original, is a little girl. Here, her name has been changed to Mary and she's played by Elle Fanning, whose preternatural poise and intelligence can't do a thing to save this. It's Christmas in 1920s Vienna, but Mary's parents (Richard E. Grant and Yulia Visotskaya) don't seem to have much time for her or her younger brother (Aaron Michael Drozin). Their Uncle Albert shows up with some toys, including a wooden nutcracker shaped like a boy, whom he has nicknamed NC. Uncle Albert is meant to be Albert Einstein, and Nathan Lane plays him as a jaunty, heavily accented buffoon who frequently looks into the camera to make inane observations.
He also sings a song to the kids about the Theory of Relativity which is painful in its literal-mindedness. This is just one example of the clunky lyrics Tim Rice ("Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar") has contributed, which distract from the purity and grace of the music. During "Waltz of the Flowers," the Snow Fairy (also Visotskaya) sings to Mary: "Is each day a new beginning? Do you have a fight worth winning?" It's just needless.
In keeping vaguely to the original story line, Mary goes to sleep but awakens in the middle of the night to find the Christmas tree has grown and the toys have come to life. She enters the tree with NC (a mix of animated figure voiced by Shirley Henderson and live performance from Charlie Rowe), who's actually a prince cast under a spell. Soon, Mary finds that they're both the targets of the Rat King (John Turturro), a cruel dictator who burns toys to create a giant smoke cloud that blocks out the sun.
Yes, you read that right.
A large portion of "The Nutcracker in 3-D" takes place in the Rat King's bleak realm; in a flamboyant performance, Turturro wears a wig reminiscent of Andy Warhol but prances around in a military uniform, ordering his troops (some of whom have nasally New York accents) to snatch toys from the hands of weeping children. Then he, too, bursts into song, and it's so campy, it's like something out of "The Producers."
It's not as if the visuals redeem the bizarre content; the lousy conversion from 2-D doesn't exactly make the film an eye-popping delight. If this movie can be useful in any way, hopefully it will hammer home the point that not everything needs to be in 3-D. In fact, most movies don't.
"The Nutcracker in 3-D," from Freestyle Releasing, is rated PG. Running time: 107 minutes. One star out of four.