Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Nutcracker Prince (Lacewood productions, 1990)

I’ll be honest, dear readers, I’m beginning to despair that I shall never see a good movie again. I’m also beginning to despair that I’ll never review a movie people have heard of again. No one wants to read about Gay Purr-ee for Pete’s sake, and if I don’t get my ratings up, Mr. Blogpost is gonna fire me for sure! Well, that sure as hell isn’t changing today, as I look at The Nutcracker Prince, which might be the worst movie based on The Nutcracker I’ve ever seen. The Nutcracker in 3-D is arguably a worse film, but the mere knowledge that someone had to pitch it with phrases like “John Tuturro is the rat, only he looks like Andy Warhol and is a Nazi” and “Instead of a mysterious old toymaker, the nutcracker will be given by Albert Einstein, who will be played by Nathan Lane” and “This is a real passion project for me, the guy who directed Tango and Cash”. I know, now I wish I was reviewing that one, too. But no, I’m reviewing this little Canadian turd. Folks make some For Better or for Worse TV specials (yes, really), and suddenly they think they can do a feature, and Warner decides to throw it into theaters and grab some holiday bucks for cheap. Well, I hope it made a lot of money, and I hope they choke on it.






I want to address the story right away, because I’ve got a compliment and an insult here. Compliment: This is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the original story, Nussknacker und Mausekönig, by E.T.A. Hoffman. Insult: That was not a good idea, because the original story was highly episodic, ludicrously convoluted, and Hoffman was a crazy person whose fantasy stories were like every stereotype of German fairy tales you can imagine. His most famous work, apart from this, is Der Sandmann, wherein The Sandman is depicted as a spirit who comes to children that are not asleep, pulls out their eyes, and feeds them to his children, who live on the moon. So yeah.

The story of the Nutcracker most people are familiar with is from the famous ballet, and it goes as follows:

1 - A girl named Clara gets a nutcracker as a gift from her godfather Drosselmeyer, a maker of fantastic toys.
2 - Her brother breaks the nutcracker’s jaw. This doesn’t really come up again.
3 - That night, the girl’s toys come to life, and her nutcracker fights the king of the mice.
4 - Clara saves the nutcracker by throwing her shoe at the mouse.
5 - The nutcracker, freed from his curse by her act of love, becomes a handsome prince, takes her to his candyland kingdom, and they watch a bunch of insane dances by weird people.

"How do you like our tree, Fritz?" "THE FIRE LIVES WITHIN ME, PURE AND CLEANSING."

It’s not an entirely coherent or sensical story, but it is nice and concise. But it does deviate from the original story in some significant ways. First of all, Clara is named Marie in the book. No idea why they changed it for the ballet. Marie is injured after saving the nutcracker, and wakes up, thinking it was all a dream. As she recovers, Drosselmeyer tells her the story of the hard nut, where - bear with me - a princess was cursed with ugliness by the queen of the mice, so the king’s chief inventor, who is also named Drosselmeyer, makes a bunch of mousetraps that kill her seven sons. She shortly thereafter bears another son, with seven heads. Past-Drosselmeyer realizes that in order to be cured of her ugliness, the princess must eat the Crackatooth nut, and it must be cracked and handed to her by a guy who has never shaven or worn boots and is blindfolded and was never of woman born until Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane or something. Long story short, the only one who can crack it is Drosselmeyer’s nephew, but after he does so, he is himself cursed with ugliness, getting a big head, giant teeth, a long beard - look, you get it, he becomes a giant nutcracker. The mouse queen dies, the princess banishes the nephew for looking totally gross, and then we cut back to the present.


While Marie is recovering, she is visited at nights by the seven-headed mouse king, who tells her that he will destroy the nutcracker if she doesn’t give him candy and, for some reason, dolls. She does so night after night until one night she is visited by the nutcracker, who tells her to get him a toy sword. She does so, and the next night he returns with seven crowns, and I guess that’s that. Then we finally get part 5 of the ballet, wherein she goes with Ol’ Cracky to the Land of Toys, which she eventually leaves, causing people back home to think she’s crazy when she talks about it. Some time later, she tells the Nutcracker that she loves him no matter how ugly he is. Immediately, Drosselmeyer comes by with his nephew, who secretly tells her that he is the Nutcracker, and her love cured his ugliness, and now they can get married.

Oh, yeah, he's hideous. What a monster, I tell you what.

Yeah. That is the story. I watched this with my friend Katie, who was not familiar with the original story, and I had to keep reassuring her that yes, this is how it went. More than a couple times, I had to check an online summary to make sure I was remembering it right. And most of the changes, where they were made, served to make the plot better. They took out a lot of pointless repetition, turned the Mouse King into a more central (and one-headed) villain, and tweaked the ending to be less... well, less insane. It’s still pretty much what I said above, but they don’t go as far in explaining it, and that actually helps. They did name the girl Clara, which is a bit odd, as they generally didn't feel too beholden to the ballet. There are also some changes made for comedy, like how in the Hard Nut story, the mice don’t eat the lard for the sausages, they eat the cheese out of a cheesecake.

Actually, I should discuss the Hard Nut story. Sometimes a book will have a very long extended flashback, or a lengthy plot digression. Like the detailed story of how the rats escaped from NIMH, or what Michael Corleone got up to in Sicily. There’s a reason that stuff was ignored in the excellent movie adaptations of those books. A book can take the time for a long sidebar, a movie can’t. People consume the media differently. Matters were not helped here by having the story/flashback played blatantly more comedic, and animated in a different style. And I don’t mean a cool different style, I mean “suddenly everything looks like Jay Ward had a stroke”.

I think they wanted this guy to look like a rich and fancy man, but instead he looks like a footman.

Not that the animation was great in the first place. Everyone was constantly off-model, the characters seem to have no weight, the camera placement is arbitrary and weird, and the lip sync is all over the place. And no one’s eyes are able to focus. It’s like they were all kicked in the head by mules. I actually checked out some of the For Better or for Worse TV specials, and they’re pretty good (animation-wise, at least. They’re still based on For Better or For Worse). I don’t know if having an increased budget led their ambition to outstrip their talent, or if their attempt at ripping off the Disney house style was just not something they could do, but their made-for-TV family light comedy looks better than their big budget movie.

The voices are mostly Canadian TV actors, but there are three really weird exceptions. First, Phyllis Diller as the Mouse Queen, who is Phyllis Diller, and your opinion of that is entirely based on what you already think of her. Personally, I’m in favor. If despairing at the state of someone’s career is more your speed, there’s Peter O’Toole as an old toy soldier named Pantaloon, and I can say with great pleasure that he presumably got paid for this. The weirdest of all is Keifer Sutherland as the Nutcracker. He recorded this early in his career, somewhere after The Lost Boys, but before A Few Good Men, and I don’t know if he’s just inexperienced, or if he’s a terrible voice actor, or if this is the first time he read the script, or if he was recording his lines over the phone while he was distracted by playing Bubble Bobble or making a souffle... Look, you get the idea. He’s terrible. And I’ve never heard him do voice over since then, apart from the odd car commercial, so who cares. You ever see those clips of Peter Dinklage clearly not bothering to try while doing a video game voice? Sutherland is like that, only worse.

Some help you are, Angel.

I guess I should mention the music before I go. They used the Tchaikovsky score as background music, and Katie and I were constantly distracted by trying to figure out if it was at the right moment in the show. Usually, no. Most oddly was the choice to have exactly one song, which Clara sings to the Nutcracker before the mice attack. This was set to the tune of the Waltz of the Flowers, which to be fair, is probably the best number from the show. Top three, at least. It’s still really out of nowhere.

Now here’s where I get crazy. I’m giving this a HIGHLY PROVISIONAL recommendation. If you’ve got a child with a weird frame of mind, and you want to keep them occupied at Christmastime, there are MUCH WORSE specials they could be watching. Make no mistake, this is bad. It’s not at all good. But it’s committed. These people weren’t just trying to make a buck, despite the way I characterized them earlier. My initial assessment was wrong. These were people who really cared about Hoffman’s weird, weird, weird story and wanted to bring it to the screen. there’s no crass commercialism here, no shameless attempt to cash in on a trend. Just a bunch of out-of-their-element Canadians badly telling a weird-ass story. It’ll give your kid some very strange memories, at least.

"It... it can't be! I KILLED YOU!!"


* I mentioned Jay Ward above, and I have to admit, I’m 95% sure that was intentional. They seem to have been trying to do a “Fractured Fairy Tales” riff, and it did not work even a little.

* 1990 was a hell of a year for Keifer. This, Young Guns 2, Flatliners, Flashback, and Chicago Joe and the Showgirl. It’s a wonder he ever worked again.

* I have no idea where this is meant to take place. Everyone has English, American, or Canadian accents, except one random German guy. But there’s nothing particularly German about it, and half the names are French.

* The DVD I got started with a bunch of unskippable trailers, which provided me with two interesting bits of information. First, people are still trying to make Felix the Cat and Benji work. Let them die, folks. Not every franchise has to be neverending. Second, there was a trailer for a Mary Engelbreit-illustrated version of Mother Goose. You know Mary Engelbreit? She draws the pictures for your grandma’s kitchen calendar. Yeah, her. Anyway, that trailer said that it is “sure to be the definitive Mother Goose for generations to come”, which strikes me as a pretty ballsy claim.

"Hey! Hey! It is REALLY hard to maintain my authority in this setting, so a little respect here!"

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