The Nutcracker was Mikhail Baryshnikov's first crack (I can't believe I just made that cheesy pun) at choreography, and it's a performance that makes you wish you could have been there.
Baryshnikov and The American Ballet Theatre bring to the screen Hoffman's story set to Tchaikovsky's classical score and Lev Ivanov's ballet. The classic tale has a young girl, Clara (here, danced by Gelsey Kirkland) getting a wonderful nutcracker for Christmas. Her mean brother pulls off the head of the nutcracker. When it's reattached, Clara falls into a magical—and sometimes frightening—Christmas Eve dream. In her dream, the nutcracker is a prince and must battle an army of evil life-sized mice. Although traditionally considered a story for children, I don't imagine that children will be all that enthralled by this dialogue-free interpretation of the story. It is best viewed by those looking to expand their horizons, or those already fans of ballet.
The sets are gorgeous, the costumes are wonderful, and close-camera work allows you to see the expressions on the dancers' faces in what is basically a "silent" film. The dancing is breathtaking, and watching a then (it was 1977, I believe) young Baryshnikov makes one happy his work has been permanently captured on film. On the other hand, a ballet of this caliber is better scene on stage. Cameras here tell you what you're supposed to be paying attention to, and therefore, you can't possibly get a full scope of the entire performance—even if the editing and camerawork is artistic in its own right. And of course, when a ballet is on film, you have opportunities to catch little slip ups by the dancers, or moments when timing is off in a group routine. But still, if you are a fan of ballet, I've no doubt you will be glad to have this version captured on screen.
The 1:33:1 full-frame presentation (it was made for television) suffers from badly washed out color—the picture is very bright—as well as glaring haloing and softness. Ironically, the print seems nearly flawless, with few signs of defects on the print.
Two options are available, 2.0 stereo or 5.1 surround. The 5.1 track fills the room with sound, but unfortunately, it's not a stunning display of digital quality sound for such a beautiful classical piece. Sound is rather muffled and there isn't much in the way of separation.
There are no extras, just 18 chapter breaks for scene selection.
The Nutcracker is your opportunity to dabble in a little culture if you're not much of a ballet fan, or cherish a video version of a classic if you are a fan. The story is a Christmas classic, the Tchaikovsky compositions have become standard Christmas tunes, and this is one outstanding dance spectacular, featuring Baryshnikov at the height of his career.