'Nutcracker': It's no sugarplum treat

November 21, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The Nutcracker


Animated, with the voices of Kiefer Sutherland and Peter O'Toole.

Directed by Paul Shibli.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated G.

** Ah, the '90s! If you've been bad, boys and girls, Santa is no longer going to leave a lump of coal in your stocking. Oh no. Now the wise old guy in the red suit who knows if you've been naughty or nice is going to leave you a ticket to "The Nutcracker Prince." So you'd better straighten up and fly right, you little rats, or I am going to take you to this movie and make you sit through it all without popcorn or nachos or warm dogs and no, no, oh, no, you can't go to the bathroom, you can't talk, hah, no, you just have to sit there and watch the damned movie!

And if that doesn't get the message across . . . I'll take you to it again!

This animated version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," surely by now eroded into the banality of complete familiarity, is excruciatingly literal and treacly. And, oh my, it seems to last longer than a geological epoch. Most parents won't be surprised to notice glaciers in the parking lot as they stagger to their cars, depressed children in hand.

The, er, story, as derived from the original dark E.T.A. Hoffman tale, follows as pubescent Clara watches on Christmas Eve while the Nutcracker Prince leads an Army of Dolls against the forces of the Mouseking, travels to Sugarplum land, and then decides to return to the human race instead of spending the rest of her life around guys with screws in their elbows and little red circles painted onto their cheeks.

The screenwriter, Patricia Watson, tries to find a naturalistic context to set the fantastic story in, but the dialogue she writes is so insufferably cartoon-cute that it doesn't matter what context the story is set in. And on top of that, the story keeps

stepping on the music (which is played, after all, by the London Symphony Orchestra.) I mean, if this is indeed a "Nutcracker," let us hear it in full blasting power and watch it danced, even if by drawings.

Well, maybe we should forget the drawings. The animation, directed by Canadian Paul Schibli, is trapped wretchedly between inert background paintings that are far too detailed and character animation that is far too generic. Clara and her hero, the Prince, both have those deeply uninteresting WASP noses, little buttons of cutely upturned cartilage, that make them look as if they were separated at birth. None of the other characters has much in the way of majesty, including the Mouseking, who looks like Yogi Bear in a Mickey Mouse mask fuzzy with fungi.

There's a deeper, conceptual flaw, inherent to the idea. When you take classical music -- as does this and as did Walt Disney in "Fantasia" -- and literally create the images, you take from it its power, which is the power to provoke. Dance is line and beauty and athletic triumph, but it is not literal in the dramatic sense; it suggests and inspires. This "Nutcracker," however, leaves nothing to the imagination and itself doesn't have much imagination.

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