Vienna. The 1920s. Albert Einstein sings about his “Theory of Relativity” to his niece, who promptly discovers a world of proto-Nazi space-ranger rats led by a nasty, singing Andy Warhol rodent. But I don’t have to tell you the beloved story of The Nutcracker.
Apparently writer-director Andrei Konchalovsky does. The man who brought you Duet for One, Runaway Train, and Tango & Cash now brings you The Nutcracker in 3D, a certifiably nutty take on the E.T.A. Hoffmann fable and Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet score. The Tchaikovsky melodies get lyrics by Sir Tim Rice (Evita, The Lion King); for those scoring at home, that’s the first of several terrible ideas.
The first sign of trouble comes when Einstein (played by Nathan Lane with a forced twinkle that says “Just think of the paycheck”) starts babbling directly to the camera on his way to visit his niece and nephew. In the next scene, Uncle Albert asks the children’s gruff father (Richard E. Grant of Withnail & I) a loaded question: “Will Dr. Freud be at the festivities?” “I certainly hope not!” the father replies, but Konchalovsky has most definitely invited pop psychology to the party.
In “theory,” that’s not such a bad idea, and at times, The Nutcracker in 3D may convince you that it’s more Alice in Wonderland than Alice in Wonderland. Konchalovsky sends heroine Mary (Elle Fanning) on an ego trip that begins with a spectacular reorientation of scale (Question: “Did we get smaller or did the room get bigger?” Answer: “If you don’t mind me saying, that’s a naïve question. Everything’s relative”).
It’s all well and good until Konchalovsky sets self-empowerment speeches to Tchaikovsky, sends the children’s Mother (Yulia Visotskaya) flying around as a Snow Fairy, and serves up that singing-Nazi-Andy Warhol Rat King (played with sad gusto by John Turturro), who wants to “ratify” the world. Mary teams up with erudite ape Gielgud (Peter Elliot), fat clown Tinker (Hugh Sachs), boy drummer Sticks (Africa Nile) and, of course, the Nutcracker (Shirley Henderson), who goes by the much hipper “NC,” thank you very much.
Clearly, this is one of those “it looked good on paper” kind of movies: little in it is likely to raise a laugh from a child, and it fails sufficiently to carry us away into fantasy, much less whimsy, despite the theme of hanging on to what childlike wonder we can. Wee ones are more likely to be scared than entertained by jackbooted rats herding innocents around a ghetto and throwing toys into ovens. It’s like The Nutcracker meets Street Fighter, the sort of movie to which only Dieter from “Sprockets" would take his kids. And the downright lousy 3D (tacked on in post-production) is of the headache variety, not least for the unjustifiably higher cost at the box office.
And yet I’m sort of glad The Nutcracker in 3D exists. It’s so earnestly crackpot that one has to admire Konchalovsky for getting it made at all. If only Proposition 19 had passed, there’d be folks around who would actually enjoy it. It cracks the ol’ nut alright.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]