Blu-ray Review: Astonishingly Awful ‘The Nutcracker: The Untold Story’

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CHICAGO – The mind boggles when attempting to comprehend the unmitigated disaster known as “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story,” which was titled “The Nutcracker in 3D” during its theatrical run. Other bad films have tried to adapt Tchaikovsky’s ballet classic for the big screen (remember Macaulay Culkin’s version from the ’90s?), but none have sunk to the depths of appalling ineptitude inhabited by this Christmas turkey.

Far from his glory days of “Uncle Vanya,” Russian filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy has made a film so deplorable that it’s guaranteed to traumatize children while offending their parents. His take on the material is so dark, twisted and thoroughly unwatchable that it inspires guffaws of incredulity. Yet don’t be fooled into thinking that this film is a guilty pleasure. It quickly exits “so-bad-it’s-funny” territory after its opening moments, before emerging as a self-important, staggeringly wrongheaded meditation on Nazism. Blu-ray Rating: 1.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 1.0/5.0

Let’s begin with the funny stuff. Elle Fanning flashes her signature toothy grin as Mary, a little girl in Vienna cursed with narcissistic parents and an annoying brother. She’s visited by her magical Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane), who gives her the Nutcracker doll that triggers her fantastical adventures. Yet Uncle Albert is no ordinary Albert—he’s Albert Einstein, complete with a gray fright wig and a campy accent. Lane is assigned the first of several agonizing songs, all of which fuse the ballet’s immortal melodies with atrocious lyrics by Tim Rice. Everything fails during the opening number. The actors visibly strain to squeeze their lyrics into the rhythms of Tchaikovsky’s music, while stumbling through incoherent choreography that often bares no relation to what’s leaving their mouths. Yet worst of all is the song itself, in which Uncle Albert sings about “The Theory of Relativity.” Here’s a sample of Rice’s instantly forgettable lyrics: “This is that/These are those/What is real/What’s ideal/What to feel/No one really knows.”

Elle Fanning regrettably stars in Andrey Konchalovskiy’s appalling The Nutcracker: The Untold Story.
Elle Fanning regrettably stars in Andrey Konchalovskiy’s appalling The Nutcracker: The Untold Story.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

Yet that sequence is merely a prelude to the real deal-breaker: the moment when Mary’s Nutcracker comes to life. Addressed merely as “NC,” this wooden creature is one of the lamest special effects creations in recent memory, thanks to dated animation, a deranged-looking face and the vocal performance of a miscast Shirley Henderson (who sounds creepier here than as Moaning Myrtle). If viewers decide to proceed past this laughable scene, they are gluttons for punishment.
Enter the Rat King, played by John Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig and a snout stolen from the Whos in Ron Howard’s nightmare-inducing “Grinch” remake. The King orders legions of other rats in Gestapo uniforms to round up all the toys in the world (played by flesh-and-blood actors) and burn them in a “smoke house.”  When he’s angry, the King’s mouth transforms into a gaping, rodent-like hole, but apparently the filmmakers couldn’t afford a better sound effect than Turturro yelling, “Roar!” Perhaps the worst scene in the entire picture is the King’s jazz riff on “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” where Turturro belts out, “Welcome to the Stygian eeeeera!” while electrocuting a shark in the process (nope, that wasn’t a misprint).

The Nutcracker: The Untold Story was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Nov. 1, 2011.
The Nutcracker: The Untold Story was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Nov. 1, 2011.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

Bad films are easy to make, but it takes a special sort of warped genius to pull off a failure as catastrophic as this one. Only Fanning is left unscathed, primarily because her performances in “Somewhere” and “Super 8” have already demonstrated that she’s one of the finest young actresses in the business. But no actress, however wonderful, could possibly lend credibility to this chaotic mess. The entire project is epitomized by a moment when the Rat King delights in taking snapshots of crying children. He might as well be photographing the audience.
“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), and includes a 54-minute making-of documentary that sheds light on the methods behind this cinematic madness. Konchalovskiy says that the project was originally conceived in 1969 as a British/American co-production with the Russian ballet to be directed by the great Andrei Tarkovsky (an ideal choice for such dreamlike material). When Konchalovskiy came onboard, it was his intention to capture the philosophical nature of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 1816 tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” upon which the ballet was based.
Since Tchaikovsky’s adaptation focused on spectacle rather than plot, while devoting its entire second act to a celebratory dance, the filmmakers took it upon themselves to expand upon the story. Yet instead of developing inventive storylines and enchanting characters to enrich a child’s imagination, Konchalovskiy decided to inject the tale with as many malicious and unsettling elements as possible. Turturro says his past experience of playing Arturo Oi (who he labels “Brecht’s Hitler”) onstage helped him greatly with the role of the Rat King. As for the film’s style, Konchalovskiy said he used the fantastical realism in films such as “Batman” and “Hellboy” as his model of inspiration because their surrealistic details “have smell.” If this truly was Konchalovskiy’s intention, he has undoubtedly succeeded, since every single detail in this jaw-dropping picture smells to high heaven.

‘The Nutcracker: The Untold Story’ is released by Universal Home Entertainment and stars Elle Fanning, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Frances de la Tour, Richard E. Grant, Yuliya Vysotskaya and Shirley Henderson. It was written by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Chris Solimine and directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy. It was released on Nov. 1, 2011. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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