If Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky were alive today, I’m fairly certain he would be chasing after filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky with a pitchfork.
The grand holiday ballet, a staple of the Christmas season, is returned to its literary roots with “The Nutcracker in 3D,” a stunningly ill-conceived cinematic monstrosity that perverts fanciful dreamscapes and merry pirouettes into a nightmare realm of rat-based evildoing. The Sugar Plum Fairies have been fitted for a noose, folks. Would you settle for a 90-million-dollar migraine machine that reconfigures the tenets of Nazi rule to fit a steampunk-inspired family film musical?
On Christmas Eve, Mary (Elle Fanning) and Max (Aaron Michael Drozen) are paid a visit by their uncle, Albert Einstein (Nathan Lane, natch), who gifts the kids various dolls for entertainment, including a special nutcracker for the young girl. Dragged into a subconscious realm of dubious magic, Mary learns the young nutcracker, named N.C. (voiced by Shirley Henderson), is actually an imprisoned prince (played by Charlie Rowe) who lost control of his kingdom to the wicked Rat King (John Turturro) and his army of gun-totin’ rodents. Forcing the community into ghettos, the Rat King harnesses the power of burned toys to energize his vile plans of domination, looking to secure lasting glory and please the bitter Rat Queen (Frances de la Tour). Mary, hoping to save her pal N.C. from doom, rounds up a posse of toys and takes on the Rat King, armed with dimples, a few songs, and a dog-eared copy of “Mein Kampf.”
Andrei Konchalovsky has never been celebrated as a world-class filmmaker (perhaps most legendary for co-writing “Andrei Rublev” and directing “Tango & Cash”), but I never figured the man was capable of something this distasteful. I can sense the appeal of the project to the writer/director, who sets out to merge the orchestral soar of Tchaikovsky’s work with the literary origins of “The Nutcracker” from author E.T.A. Hoffmann, who arranged a complex and sinister world of fantasy mischief to reinforce the seasonal magic. Konchalovsky’s ambition is intriguing, but what’s ultimately slapped onscreen gives new meaning to the term “hot mess.”
While opening with a parade of colorful Christmas tree ornaments to sell the holiday atmosphere, the film soon reveals its madness with the Einstein introduction, boldly pronouncing the eye-crossing shellacking of a dreadful whimsy that quickly overwhelms the picture. We’re soon treated to screechy children trying to “act,” the electrocution of a great white shark, a bizarrely graphic toy beheading, the miracle of an enchanted rock, and a series of tuneless songs from Tim Rice that bravely attempt to add what Tchaikovsky’s masterwork always needed: lyrics. The entire enterprise feels like one of those daft foreign film gems lost on the matinee battlefields of the 1960s and ‘70s, where everything is played with nuclear earnestness to serve the kid film good, despite clear evidence that the production couldn’t successfully place one foot in front of the other without stumbling to the ground.
There’s this whole business with the Rat Kingdom as well, which is the defining bit of lunacy at the core of this doomsday device. Granted, Rats are rarely handed heroic posture, but Konchalovsky matches the rise of the rodent to the drive of the Nazis, down to leather costumes and the whole toy burning business. It’s a wrongheaded artistic decision on a grand widescreen scale, creating monumental moviegoing discomfort as historical tears are reprehensibly sugared for this PG-rated production. To his credit, the director doesn’t back down from his loopy vision, encouraging an occupation ambiance of propaganda posters, roaring ovens, robotic guard dogs, and goose-stepping soldiers. Of course, there’s John Turturro out front destroying what’s left of his career prancing around in a Kate Gosselin wig while singing awful tunes about violent rat rule. I assume Konchalovsky was hunting for levity, but the performance sinks the film to impossibly deplorable depths. Did I mention the huge fanged jaws that protrude from the Rat King’s mouth when he’s in a particularly threatening mood? Kids, fill up on nightmare fuel here.
Converted poorly into cash-grab 3D, “The Nutcracker” is literally grueling to watch, with a series of distorted images attempting to pass for astonishing surplus dimension. What Konchalovsky thought the movie would gain from pushing grotesque things into the face of his audience is yet another mystery for the towering pile of mysteries. However, I have my theories on the true inspiration motivating the madness here. Something tells me if I bit into the negative, it might taste like whisky, insomnia, and repressed childhood trauma.