“From what dark night of the soul emerged the wretched idea for The Nutcracker in 3D?” begins Roger Ebert’s merciless carving of this Christmas turkey from 2010. Reading any of the film’s universally derisive reviews provokes a morbid curiosity. Surely a movie ostensibly aimed at pre-teen girls that refashions the Hoffmann-cum-Tchaikovsky fairytale as a Holocaust allegory and features Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein performing a song titled “It’s All Relative” must be a misunderstood cult classic in the making, right? Alas, The Nutcracker in 3D falls unequivocally into the category of so-bad-it’s-bad and represents the true nadir in the fifty-year career of Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, from whose dark night of the soul this lugubrious misfire emerged.
Virtually unknown to contemporary Western audiences, Konchalovsky is arguably Russia’s greatest living filmmaker and, once upon a time, it’s most successful export to Hollywood. After an auspicious debut in the mid-60s as co-scenarist of Andrei Tarkovsky’s arthouse landmarks Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo Detstvo) and Andrei Rublev, Konchalovsky spent the next fifteen years attracting respect and controversy as a director or intimate dramas that resisted blind conformity to the paradigms of Socialist Realism. His 1979 epic Siberiade, spanning three generations of pre- and post-Revolutionary village life, was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, and its international acclaim encouraged the filmmaker to test his fortune in the United States. Despite being produced by B-movie bastion Cannon Films, Konchalovsky’s Hollywood movies of the 80s remained admirably idiosyncratic and character-driven until the 1989 Sylvester Stallone-Kurt Russell vehicle Tango & Cash, from which he was fired over creative differences, effectively ending his American sojourn. The past twenty-five years have found Konchalovsky alternating seamlessly between prestigious Russian fare and mainstream English-language projects, including Emmy-winning television productions of The Odyssey and The Lion in Winter.
Given that The Nutcracker in 3D is the work of an esteemed auteur attempting his first family film while experimenting with cutting-edge technology, one could be forgiven for expecting the result to resemble something as personal and meticulously crafted as Scorsese’s Hugo, for example. Alas, the final product has far more in common with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, to name just two CGI monstrosities born of fertile imaginations. For audiences who missed the film during its theatrical run (i.e., everyone—it grossed less than $200k in the US on a reported budget of $90 million) or were unaware of its critical lambasting, the first red flag should be the DVD release’s new title, The Nutcracker: The Untold Story. Yes, this is yet another “gritty reimagining” of a beloved property that studios think moviegoers cannot get enough of, no matter the ratio of hits to misses. Faithful neither to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” nor to Tchaikovsky’s more-familiar ballet libretto, the adaptation by Konchalovsky and co-writer Chris Solimine replaces the tale’s phantasmagoric world of wonderment and possibility with an oppressively gloomy atmosphere distinguished by Nazi imagery and the relentless bickering of its characters.
A darker interpretation of the Nutcracker tale is not an inherently bad idea; the stories of Hoffmann, after all, are far closer in tone to the Brothers Grimm’s macabre fairytales than to Disney’s sanitized iterations. Furthermore, family films of the previous generation, like The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth and future cult favorite Return to Oz, were unafraid of delighting and terrifying children in equal measure, largely thanks to the tactility of lovingly-crafted puppets and stop-motion animation. However, Konchalovsky’s every narrative and aesthetic choice proves baffling and frustrating, especially given the particular strengths he has proven as a filmmaker. Until (and since) The Nutcracker, Konchalovsky has time and again displayed a mastery of setting, virtually always opting to shoot on location to capture a vivid sense of place. From the idyllic beauty of the northern Siberian forests in Siberiade to the slowly-decaying Pennsylvania steel town of Maria’s Lovers (1984) to the dangerous and exotic Louisiana bayou of Shy People (1987), Konchalovsky’s settings consistently feel specific and lived-in, lending his films a regional authenticity that is impressive in his émigré works. A considerable portion of The Nutcracker in 3D, on the other hand, was filmed in front of green screens with approximately two computer-generated locations: generic European mansion and vaguely steampunk Rat Palace/concentration camp. The one scene in which a sense of joy is even attempted—when Mary (Elle Fanning) climbs to the top of a gigantic Christmas tree—is perfunctorily designed, decorated primarily with traditional ornaments, a disco ball and a surplus of fake snow. It displays all the visual bravura of a holiday commercial from your local insurance company.
It is apparent that Konchalovsky felt far more inspired, for lack of a better word, by his story’s antagonist, the Rat King (John Turturro, done up to resemble the Long Island Medium as a Whoville resident), who can lay claim to the film’s only sequence to approach the memorably ludicrous. To display his cruelty in front of his army of rat-men clad in SS uniforms, the fascist villain performs a PG-rated reenactment of the Joker’s “pencil trick” from The Dark Knight, sings the line “Welcome to a Stygian era!” (lyrics by Tim Rice!) and gleefully electrocutes a great white shark, which is shown slowly rising belly-up to the surface of its tank. The gung-ho hamminess of Turturro’s performance softens the impact of the character’s sadism, for better or for worse, but nothing can counterbalance the tastelessness of a later scene in which the Rat King photographs the crying children whose toys he and his soldiers are confiscating and incinerating in a giant furnace. Here Konchalovsky goes so far as to intercut black-and-white still photos of young tear-stained faces with the action, seeming to deliberately evoke Schindler’s List.
After the failure of The Nutcracker, Konchalovsky vowed that he was through with Hollywood, and now, at age 78, he seems likely to keep that promise. It would be a shame, then, for this debacle to be the film for which American audiences remember him, if they remember him at all. His decade in America yielded not only a true masterpiece of the action genre, 1985’s Runaway Train with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, but also a stunning lost gem in Shy People, which has never been granted a DVD release despite rave reviews and a Cannes award-winning turn from Barbara Hershey (Ebert, incidentally, adored the film every bit as much as he hated The Nutcracker). Back in Russia, Konchalovsky remains a workhorse, and his status there as a living legend was further cemented last year with the release of The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseya Tryapitsyna); securing a national premiere on Russia’s most-watched television station, the state-controlled Channel One (Pervyi kanal), the microbudget drama has undoubtedly attracted Konchalovsky’s largest audience in years.