Owes as much to Art Spiegelman's "Maus" as it does to Tchaikovsky.
Seemingly predicated on the idea that nothing says “the holidays” quite like the Holocaust, “The Nutcracker in 3D” owes as much to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” as it does to Tchaikovsky. Like the traditional ballet, Andrei Konchalovsky’s musical extravaganza has its share of tinsel and snowflakes and draws from E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” — except here, the mice are Nazified rats, herding the people of old Vienna into labor camps. Audience bewilderment could turn to anger, given the dire contrast between the story’s seasonal associations and what Konchalovsky has fashioned from it, which is assuredly not “Merry Christmas.”
Music fans will have their own complaints: Tchaikovsky’s score, which ranks among the most beloved in the classical repertoire, has been modified into very conventional songs by Disney house lyricist Tim Rice and Konchalovsky collaborator Edward Artemiev. (They don’t stop at “The Nutcracker,” either: When the Prince, played by Charlie Rowe, sings “Life Begins Again,” auds will hear a melodic line snatched from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.) The familiarity of the music may actually be a disadvantage; the ear wants the melodies to conform to one’s memory of them, but instead they’ve been tortured into compliance with the needs of a standard movie musical.
It’s Christmas in 1920s Vienna — someone early on acknowledges Sigmund Freud gliding by on ice skates — and Mary (Elle Fanning) is bright-eyed and expectant. Unhappy that her parents (Richard E. Grant, Yulia Visotskaya) are going out for the evening, she’s nevertheless thrilled that she and brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) will be babysat by their Uncle Albert — Einstein, naturally (Konchalovksy having suspended the time-space continuum). As played by Nathan Lane, Albert is a schnitzel-accented Santa Claus who brings gifts for Max and Mary, including what will become Mary’s most cherished possession — a mechanical wooden nutcracker (with the voice of Shirley Henderson).
So far so good, until it soon becomes evident the Nutcracker is involved in a battle for world domination against the Rat King (John Turturro, wearing a platinum wig he might have borrowed from Phil Spector), who is enslaving the population with his Rat Queen mother (Frances de la Tour). Turturro’s performance is too over-the-top to be taken seriously, although there are some transformation scenes in which his teeth take on nightmarish proportions that could frighten tykes. Add to this the slave-labor elements and “Metropolis”-inspired imagery, and it’s all a lot less First Noel than Third Reich.
In Spiegelman’s graphic novel, the Nazis were cats, the Jews were mice and the rats were … rats. Even still, the film’s anthropomorphic aspects seem strongly reminiscent of those in “Maus,” which, like the original “Nutcracker,” was a fairy tale with a tragic foundation. But “The Nutcracker in 3D” is too much of a burlesque to create many resounding moral echoes.
Konchalovsky, the veteran Russian helmer whose films have ranged from “Runaway Train” to “Tango and Cash” (he also co-wrote “Andrei Rublev” with Andrei Tarkovsky) has been at this project for several years, and it’s clear enough that the film has been on the shelf for a while: Fanning, who makes the proceedings far more bearable than they should be, is obviously years younger than the actress who appears in the current “Somewhere.”
The 3D isn’t much of a visual asset here, but it might have served as a commercial kickstart for a project that was unmistakably a labor of love, of the sort the French would call l’amour fou. Tech credits are mixed: The production design is first-rate but, not surprisingly, the music is inferior to the original.