This rendition of George Balanchine’s perennial Christmastime ballet attraction proves attractive but unexciting as a screen offering. Basically a representation of the stage production with little added in terms of cinematic flair, Warner Bros. release will pull families on the basis of the property’s reputation as a holiday classic and the Macaulay Culkin casting coup, but will likely remain a modest earner.
The Tschaikovsky-Marius Petipa ballet, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year, illustrates E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale of a little girl who, on Christmas Eve, is transported to a magical world of giant toys, animated mice and glittering spectacle under the escort of a young prince who was once a nutcracker doll.
First scene warmly evokes a festive Old World Christmas, teeming with relatives in fancy dress and many kids brimming with eager anticipation. Marie’s subsequent trip to the enchanted land provides the occasion for numerous virtuoso balletic turns, both from soloists and the corps de ballet, to the accompaniment of several of the composer’s most famous passages, which are a pleasure to re-experience at the hands of conductor David Zinman and the New York City Ballet Orchestra.
But as gracefully and professionally executed as Peter Martins’ production may be, the film retains a stagebound feel that delivers neither the excitement of a live performance nor a transporting movie experience.
Under the direction of Emile Ardolino, who made his reputation with the PBS series “Dance in America” and frequently collaborated with Balanchine, camera maintains the objective viewpoint of an audience member, albeit a very mobile one. The sumptuous original Rouben Ter-Arutunian sets and Karinska costumes are supplemented by a modicum of film-style special effects.
Balletomanes may revel in the respect and fidelity shown the source, but suspicion that more mainstream audiences may not respond as readily is addressed by the casting of Culkin in the central role of the Nutcracker Prince. Part doesn’t require the child superstar to dance per se, but more to mime and move purposefully, which he does perfectly well. Culkin studied at the School of American Ballet and appeared onstage (as Marie’s younger brother) in “Nutcracker” productions in 1989 and 1990.
Regardless of pic’s pedigree, “The Nutcracker” is about as sticky and sweet as a Christmas fruitcake, and not that appetizing to a sizable public outside of culturally minded parents.
Technically, film is exceedingly polished, even if tame and earthbound. Some low-key narration by Kevin Kline, which was added late in the game and has been a bone of contention between the Culkin clan and producers, will help orient viewers not accustomed to ballet or films without dialogue.