Parents faced with overexcited children on Christmas Eve now have the perfect way to get them to sleep: The Nutcracker in 3D, a stagnant adaptation of the iconic ballet that, in a bizarre twist, operates as a fantasyland Third Reich-inspired musical. Borrowing The Wizard of Oz's dreams-refract-reality template as well as the visual designs of Terry Gilliam (whose Brazil is aped throughout via its melding of old-world fashions and mechanized contraptions, like soldiers' silver wings), Andrei Konchalovsky's film doesn't have an original thought in its fanciful head, ironic given the story's nominal focus on the power of imagination. More aggravating still is the absence of a coherent narrative path for its adventure, which herks and jerks about while recounting the saga of Mary (Elle Fanning), a young girl in 1920s Vienna with a mean old daddy (Richard E. Grant), a self-absorbed singer mother (Yulia Visotskaya), and a whimsical Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane) whose pointy gray hair and signature song, “Theory of Relativity,” mark him as the one and only Einstein. Except, alas, that in Lane's hammy hands, he's less a braniac than a buffoonish fount of wisdom, goofily addressing the camera when he's not counseling Mary to believe in the impossible.
That lesson becomes pertinent on the night before Christmas, as Uncle Albert gives Mary and her brother, Max (Aaron Michael Drozin), a dollhouse filled with three figures—chimpanzee man Gielgud (Peter Elliot), accordion-playing clown Tinker (Hugh Sachs), and drummer Sticks (Africa Nile)—as well as a wooden nutcracker who goes by NC. Before long, the doll (who's actually a prince under a curse) awakens and spirits Mary into the family's now-towering Christmas tree, where everything has come alive, and then compels her to embark on a journey to save his kingdom from the evil Rat King (John Turturro). This mission is dramatized without a clear trajectory or sense of purpose, as characters move from one locale to another in random, confounding ways that drain any sense of momentum or suspense from the proceedings. Worse still, however, is Konchalovsky's attempt to imbue his Yuletide yarn with gravity by positing the Rat King and his minions as, respectively, Hitler and the SS. The Rat King intends to blot out the sun with the billowing ash of burning children's toys that emanates from towering smokestacks, a bit of glib symbolism—also promoted by the sight of stormtroopers ripping beloved possessions out of poor people's hands—that's in such monumentally bad taste that the film soon devolves into unintentional Springtime for Hitler-type camp.
The cast overacts with relish even though Konchalovsky and Chris Solimine's script is adapted with awkwardness, from the halting beats between lines of dialogue to the shoddy ADR work. Similarly, characters burst into songs at random intervals, and after such long stretches of dramatic material that they feel wholly incompatible with the ongoing action. Or perhaps it's just that the tunes themselves, often set to Tchaikovsky's famed compositions and defined by frequently inaudible lyrics (by Tim Rice), are simply subpar. Not in doubt, however, is the indefensible lousiness of the film's 3D, which so impedes any immersion in its hectic centerpieces and thinly sketched characters' emotional plights that it alone makes the entire affair virtually unwatchable. In three dimensions, the already mediocre CG imagery proves overly dark and lacking in sharpness, thereby degrading the very wonders it should be enhancing. As with the similarly cruddy-looking Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender (among others), The Nutcracker's post-production conversion 3D doesn't add depth or richness; it merely allows one to watch the film in focus, and at an extra cost to boot. As such, Konchalovsky's holiday fable confirms its chosen technology as not simply a gimmick, but a veritable crime against both cinema and moviegoers' wallets.