Culkin is complement in pleasing 'Nutcracker'

November 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A confession: I hate "The Nutcracker." It's the worst Christmas tradition after credit card debt. My wife used to drag me to amateurish productions of it by cheesy Washington ballet companies every year to punish me for various infractions. In retaliation, I would pick on her for weeks afterward. It's the true reason the divorce rates soar over the holidays.

Then there have been two movie versions in the past few years: the 1986 "Nutcracker the Movie" with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company. I absolutely hated that one. And "The Nutcracker Prince," a 1990 cartoon version. Hated it so much I wanted to go upstairs, wreck the projector and set fire to the film.

Now comes "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker," essentially (but not entirely) a filmed transcription of the New York City Ballet's annual production of the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine chestnut, with Macaulay Culkin, a former ballet student and current 12-year-old multimillionaire, in the title role, and here's the news you've all been waiting for . . . I don't hate it.

Not really.

Directed by Emile Ardolino, who died Saturday and was best known for "Dirty Dancing," it never ventures from theatrical conventions, persistently observing the stage as if through a transparent fourth wall. It never really "enters" the action and it makes no attempt to move the symbolic world of the theater into a "natural one" more appropriate to the world of the film.

In short, the camera functions entirely as a set of eyes in the head of a sophisticated balletomane in roughly Row 3, Seat A. It observes the whole scope of action, then selects the most interesting information and veers in, but never into movie close-up range. The dancers remain idealized and beautiful; we don't see them sweat or notice the crustiness of their make-up; their magic is never penetrated and debased.

Ardolino makes choices one can respect. For one thing, he's not overwhelmed by Culkin, whose entrance is prosaic, not dramatized: the young man simply slides into the frame from off stage, not even in focus yet, as the center of the action at that moment is his uncle, Herr Drosselmeier (Bart Robinson Cook), which is exactly the way the living eye would record it.

For another, Ardolino seems to understand that Jessica Lynn Cohen, who dances the co-equal part of Marie, the young girl whose dream the ballet represents, has every bit as enchanting and radiant a face as does Master Home Alone, and he in no way pitches the film to the kid with the more powerful agent.

Can Culkin dance? Well . . . you didn't hear this from me, but not quite. The other kids, particularly the gossamer and beguiling Cohen, are true dancers; you feel their spontaneity, their liquid movement. Culkin seems far more programmatic and always a nanosecond or two behind; in the third act, he does a little solo number that's cute and professional but hardly inspired.

Some controversy attends to the project. Culkin's father Kit has achieved a nasty reputation for throwing weight around, and has reportedly objected to a narration provided by Kevin Kline which makes the ballet more accessible to non-ballet fans, on the grounds that it detracts attention from his son. But producer Arnon Milchan heroically refused to delete the voice-over. How does this key issue shake out in the arena of the actual?

Snap judgment from the only full-time professional movie critic in Baltimore: ZZZZZZZZ.

But as a piece of frothy fun syncopated to perhaps not the most profound piece of music ever written that's light on its feet and erases all ponderous thought from the brain, this "Nutcracker" is easy to take. It's also unlikely to cause many divorces. It even has a local angle: the New York City Ballet Orchestra was conducted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's David Zinman.

MOVIE REVIEW

"George Balanchine's The Nutcracker"

Starring Macaulay Culkin and Jessica Lynn Cohen

Directed by Emile Ardolino

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated G

***

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