Batsh*t crazy, and not necessarily in a good way, Andrei Konchalovsky's The Nutcracker in 3D
is a bizarre concoction, confounding yet fascinating, an odd mixture of children's fantasy and Nazi nightmares. John Turturro sings and dances as the Rat King, Nathan Lane croons two songs in a cracked Russian accent and talks to the camera, toys are burnt in hulking factories that resemble concentration camps, and a young black toy comes to life and speaks in the worst Jamaican accent since Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black
It's a head-scratcher, all right, but I couldn't look away. It's like candy that instantly rots your teeth yet leaves a sweet smell in your mouth.
Elle Fanning stars as Mary, who lives opulently with her family in Vienna, Austria in the 1920s. Her parents, played by Richard Grant and Yuliya Vysotskaya (the director's wife), are heading off for the evening and have asked Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane) to look after Mary and her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin). Uncle Albert sweeps into the home, imparting the gift of a nutcracker to Mary -- it's Christmas Eve -- which Max promptly breaks.
With a tool kit in his pocket and a song in his heart, Uncle Albert fixes the nutcracker and sings to make Mary feel better. She drifts off to sleep and awakens as the tiny nutcracker comes to life, and grows to child-size height. Preferring to be called "NC" (and voiced by Shirley Henderson), the toy leads Mary on a grand adventure.
Initially the adventure seems magical. There are transparent creatures dancing through the family's Christmas tree, ornaments and toys, like NC, come alive, and it all seems quite innocent and lovely. Danger lurks at the edges, however, in the form of rats, and when the Christmas tree is toppled, Mary wakes up and is transported from the magical dimension to her plain old ostentatiously deluxe home.
She must go back, however, and this time she is accompanied by the annoying Max, who instantly accepts a tempting offer from the Rat King and deserts poor Mary. When NC is kidnapped by the rats, Mary rallies a troop of toys to rescue him, putting their own lives at risk; it seems that the Rat King is burning toys to fuel his own evil plans to take over the kingdom.
The sight of the nearly-unrecognizable Turturro as the Rat King, prancing about gymnastically, singing a dreadful song, and being berated by his mother, is a non sequitur in action, but that's nothing compared to the toy-burning scene, which is carried out under the direction of rats who are attired in uniforms that bear a close resemblance to Nazis. Combine that with the images of hundreds of toys being tossed into a heap, where they lie with their limbs akimbo, with smokestacks belching black smoke into the air in the background, and you have a recipe for creating childhood nightmares.
Perhaps Konchalovsky and company sincerely wanted to add a serious note to the proceedings, but, if so, it's a badly miscalculated move. Within the context of this film, it's overreaching and pretentious to equate an uprising by talking animated rats with Nazis, especially when it's presented in such a grave, straightforward fashion. This is not Art Spiegelman's "Maus," after all.
By that point of the movie, the narrative train has already jumped the tracks. The tone veers wildly; for example, the appearances by Nathan Lane are arbitrary and feel as though they came from another movie entirely. Lane mugs shamelessly and then imparts sentimental family values. John Turturro must deliver awful dialogue that is meant to be comedic, but it hasn't a hint of humor. Likewise, young Elle Fanning troops through her scenes with bright energy, even when her actions don't make a lick of sense.
Konchalovsky, who once upon a time in the 1980s made two berserk pieces of hammy Hollywood entertainment -- Runaway Train
and Tango and Cash
-- still has an eye for filling the screen with visuals that capture the imagination, and that's what makes the film consistently watchable, even if it is like the proverbial car crash in slow motion.
I've already mentioned the early scene with transparent dancing pixies, which looks wondrous, and there are numerous other sequences that look delightfully nutty, a cracked merging of animation and live action, jammed with crazy characters and detailed production design, that hints at what might have been. But the ridiculous story, especially the woefully overwrought villains, brings things crashing down, as does some awkward, tone-deaf acting and a general sense that the movie was made up as they went along.
You'll have to supply your own narrative for this one, not to mention an extra dose of patience for your viewing attention. And you may need smelling salts if your children are faint-hearted. The Nutcracker in 3D
opens today in limited U.S. release, and is scheduled to expand wide next week.