While it lacks the richness and texture of the famed ballet, "The Imax Nutcracker" is nevertheless solid family entertainment. Strong production values and familiar themes would seem to ensure the film will become a holiday classic.

While it lacks the richness and texture of the famed ballet, “The Imax Nutcracker” is nevertheless solid family entertainment. Strong production values and familiar themes would seem to ensure the film will become a holiday classic.

Initially, of course, the celebrated children’s fantasy might not appear to be the stuff of a 3-D Imax cinematic experience. Aquatic adventures and sprawling mountain vistas are one thing, but dancing bears?

As it turns out, “The Imax Nutcracker” was a shrewd choice — not for its artistic achievement, which is slight, but for its evergreen marketability. Musical purists may condemn the new version, because the 37-minute pic feels like a Cliffs Notes version of the 90-minute Tchaikovsky ballet: There are enough memorable melodies to recall the essence of the piece, but key musical passages have been condensed or omitted altogether.

The plot, apparently based more on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story than on the ballet, unfolds as a straight narrative rather than a choreographed dance. Young Clara (Lotte Johnson) receives a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Drosselmeier (Heathcote Williams) at Christmas. That night by the tree she witnesses a bizarre scene: The toys, having magically grown larger than life, spring into combat. More chaotic than dramatic, the scene is distinguished by a few moments of cinematic wizardry when flying objects seem to veer straight toward the audience.

When Clara intercedes to help the Nutcracker emerge victorious, he casts off his disguise and reveals himself as the young prince he truly is. In a short but technically accomplished sequence, the Prince (Benjamin Hall) escorts Clara across a lake to his enchanted homeland. There they meet the rotund Sugar Plum (Miriam Margolyes), a pastry chef who creates a dancing fairy (ballerina Tamara Rojo) from spun sugar. But just when it seems the action is rising, Clara awakens, Dorothy-style, to find herself at home.

That the best sequence of the film is truncated may have more to do with budgetary factors than creative ones. But this brief ballet is a reminder of how lovely Tchaikovsky’s score can be. It also makes you wish there were more scenes like it and fewer instances of stilted dialogue.

Acting is adequate all around, as are technical credits, though a greater use of effects would have further exploited the capabilities of 3-D lensing.

The most visually dazzling set piece of the film, the Prince’s castle, a stunning concoction of spun sugar, reveals what the creative team of Annabel Hands, Neale Brown and John McMillan can accomplish.

The Imax Nutcracker

Production

An Imax Corp. presentation of a Sands Films production. Produced by Olivier Stockman, Lorne Orleans. Executive producer, Andrew Gellis. Directed, written by Christine Edzard, based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Crew

Camera (color), Noel Archambault; music, V.I. Tchaikovsky, arranged by Michel Sanvoisin; production design/art direction, Annabel Hands, Neale Brown, John McMillan; costume design, Edzard; associate producer, Celia Bannerman. Reviewed at Edwards Imax Theater, Irvine, Nov. 16, 1997. Running time: 37 min.

With

Sugar Plum - Miriam Margolyes
Drosselmeier - Heathcote Williams
Clara - Lotte Johnson
Nutcracker Prince - Benjamin Hall
Mother - Harriet Thorpe
Father - Patrick Pearson
Frederick - Daniel Wylie
The Sugar Fairy - Tamara Rojo
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