Within the lair of a tyrannical villain, a lavish song and dance ensues while we're watching a colossal shark swim in an enclosed tank. The war-torn streets of a city are tattered and littered with eviscerated toys and ash. And rat-humanoid soldiers soar through the air in jet-propelled gliders (think Santa Clause), while a helicopter with at least twelve propellers and a pair of mechanical legs zips along the horizon. No, you're not reading the wrong review: all this exists within The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, a UK-Hungary co-production directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy, and it's about as, uh, different as it sounds, showing inspiration from Julie Taymor and a little Sky Captain in its theatrical opulence. But it's also convoluted, out-of-place, and frustrating against the context of Christmas family fare -- and a wacky juxtaposition of holiday tidings and dystopian bleakness is only the start of its problems.
Most of that occurs in the second half of this wild deviation from E.T.A. Hoffman's story, while the first feels a little more at-ease in the spirit of holiday-focused cinema. It tells the story of a wealthy family in '20s Austria, mostly from the perspective of Mary (a charming but discomfited Elle Fanning, Super 8), a pre-teen girl who wants her whole clan together for Christmas -- something that's not going to happen since her mother (Yuliya Vysotskaya), an opera singer, has a performance that evening. Instead, she and her brother will be looked after by their uncle, Albert (boisterously accented by Nathan Lane, The Producers), and after he brings over a dollhouse and a wooden nutcracker for the kids, he sings them to sleep with the 'Relativity Song" (yeah, he's that Albert). But in the confines of Mary's dreams, or so it seems, the wooden nutcracker becomes human-sized and speaks to her of important matters, while her home also shifts in dimension and the dollhouse her uncle gave her -- as well as the handful of toys/dolls occupying it -- comes to life.
At first, for the most part, Konchalovskiy's odd holiday extravaganza treads water by spinning a bland but tolerable riff on the Nutcracker story, even though stilted performances, tonal shifts, and impromptu musical numbers still render it a perplexing and unfocused celebration of the story's tradition. A lot of it comes from its artistic perspective, easily the film's highlight; as the camera guides through a blown-up version of Mary's house, through the needles and branches of a Christmas tree adorned with candy-colored ornaments, and amidst whimsically-swirling magic sparkles, it surrounds the wide-eyed Mary with visual delights that, at first, distract from the tale's cockamamie hollowness. And even though the idea of familiar faces appearing in one's dreams has been explored- Tarsem's The Fall comes to mind -it fits well-enough here to not feel overly banal against its dreamy setting.
But once we learn more about the nutcracker, his royal lineage, the spell that turned him wooden, and his kingdom being overrun by humanoid rats, this thing turns sour just as soon as it moves away from the dollhouse and Christmas tree. Transforming the rats into warmongering imperialists and erroneously removing itself from the Christmas atmosphere -- literally and tonally -- for nearly half the picture, the path it undergoes as Mary continues her travels with the animated Nutcracker (NC, as he's goofily called) becomes one of the most infuriating, poorly-conceptualized holiday films I've seen. Due in equal parts to ungainly direction from Andrey Konchalovskiy and dreadful scripting, the magical essence that spices up the beginning is lost in the smog of peculiar dreariness, created by an ugly Burgermeister-Meisterburger villain in Joe Turturro's rat king and a dreary air that wants to say something about war-torn cities ... but can't come close.
Aside from the problematic filmmaking in its bones, The Nutcracker: The Untold Story faces its biggest problem in trying to both wildly deviate from the story proper and reincorporate the elements that hallmark a production of The Nutcracker -- including Tchaikovsky's score, now accompanied by hammy lyrics by Tim Rice. Instead, we're left with snarling Nazi rats with retractable snouts, sharks killed on a whim, and oodles of spirit-zapping oddness in the destitute streets of the smoky city in Mary's dreams, and the action or stakes that propel it through the deviations can't generate enough concern over the outcome to justify its peculiarity. So much has gone awry that it's tough to succinctly convey it, but saying there's no magic, too much fright, and not enough Christmas cheer is a good starting point, and whoever voiced this untold (albeit wall-to-wall identifiable) story and its tangents should've bit their tongue.
Video and Audio:
But like I said, there's certainly something to be said for the 90 million-dollar aesthetic in The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, and Universal's 1080p treatment of the 2.39:1-framed extravaganza at least delivers the visual treats with a razor-sharp eye. The film's first half offers more standard wonderment as it weaves through the Austrian home, Albert's rustic dollhouse, and up-and-through the Christmas tree, with every speck of glitter on the ornaments and every spine of the tree's branches blisteringly clear in HD. Dark scenes are cloaked in the blues of twilight, and the rich contrast preserves details in the shadows and the shifts of color in the palette. Once it goes into the rat-occupied city, the palette turns properly gray and dreary, like a war film, but still captures agile skin tones and impressive dark levels with no compression issues and very little processing or smoothness.
It sounds great, too, with the DTS-HD Master Audio track jumping from the Tchaikovsky-inspired music and echoic pitter-patter through the Austrian home to the rush of flying rats and throttling helicopters. You'll never have any issues making out the dialogue (whether that's a good thing or not will be up to you), as it supports the subtle baritone resonance of Nathan Lane to the piercing innocence of Elle Fanning, though it's often a little choked and constrained to the center of the stage's front-end. The sheer amount of activity flooding to the rears, however, is pretty astonishing; the swirl of magic, the jet gliders, and the bustle of motorcycle chases and high-stakes gallivanting through the rat kingdom stretches from front to back for an immersive experience.
Making of The Nutcracker: The Untold Story (54:24, SD):
Feel how you will about it, but there's no denying that a lot of hard work, imagination, and tried-and-true movie-making polish went into this production, and this lengthy piece dives deep into the construction. You'll hear the name "Tarkovsky" talk within the extensive changes made to the ballet, returning to the thematic content in the original story. Interviews with the cast and crew talk about the the scary nature of classic fairy tales, warped reality, Elle Fanning's refined emotionality, morphing the music and recording the musical numbers -- and the fact that Tchaikivsky couldn't call up and complain about it is, apparently, a good thing. The discussion with Andrey Konchalovskiy isn't in-depth, and the interviews are stock press-kit material, but the array of behind-the-scenes shots -- which looks at the green-screen work, the tried-and-true cinematography, the makeup work, and the production design -- will impress those left cold by the film's issues.
I've been hard on Christmas films in the past, but I'll be able to go easier on them for a little while after seeing The Nutcracker: The Untold Story -- because, well, "everything's ree-laa-tiiive". The production design looks great, from the sets and costume work to the visual effects, but everything under the hood feels like a stagnant blend of Julie Taymor's Titus and Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, crammed into a poorly-written and uncomfortably-directed shell of a holiday film. It casts a bizarre spell over the audience while it realizes spin after wild spin on the classic story and ballet, assuredly not the work of holiday tidings, dramatic authenticity, or any sort of joy. Universal's Blu-ray may present the film with robust, crystal-clear audiovisual properties, but even the visually impressive moments don't make it worth slogging through this unusual misfire. Skip it.