From the Creator of Where the Wild Things Are
The holidays are a strange time for movies. For one thing, Christmas movies are only really watchable around the month of December. (Something just feels weird about watching them any other time of the year, but I just can't put my finger on it.) This means that movies themed around Christmas really only have one good month to find their audience, and have to make such an impression in the public's mind as to be remembered again a year later when it's time for them to be released on home video.
Of course, many succeed in this task. It almost seems like a sacrilege not to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation annually, and Love Actually is fast becoming a modern classic in its own right. Yet we're still treated to numerous movies that bastardize classics (Ron Howard's version of The Grinch) or at least make them feel eerie and alien (The Polar Express) or otherwise try to knockoff Christmas Vacation. (Deck the Halls, Christmas With the Cranks, etc.)
So this month, I'm going to try and shed light on as many under appreciated Christmas movies as I can, starting with the 1986 film, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.
What makes this particular version stand out is that the production, originally created for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, was designed by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. Like many projects helmed by artists with distinctive touches, every scene bears his signature style, with backgrounds and costumes that look like they were lifted right out of his picture books. Not surprisingly, he later illustrated a version of the E. T. A. Hoffman story based on the artwork he created for this production.
This version also stands out because the filmmakers truly shot this as a movie, instead of just filming a live performance of the production. In adapting the ballet for screen they didn't limit themselves showing things that could be done on stage. Instead they took advantage of the camera's ability to show close subtle interactions between characters, as well as a few creative scene transitions.
That being said, it still retains the feel of a production meant for the stage. The effects are low budget, but executed in a manner reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula or a Wes Anderson movie. In other words, it's very theatrical. For example, the second act opens with a shot of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince sailing along the ocean. The set is perfectly framed on all sides by a featuring Sendak's designs, while the boat and waves are all done with two dimensional cut outs. Instead of looking like a cheap effect, the result is an a moving illustration.
For anybody who is seriously familiar with the Nutcracker ballet, I should mention this version does some unique liberties with the art direction and story. Maybe not to the extent of the sexualized, Dickensian vision in Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! but something unique nonetheless. Instead of the second half being set in a candy land like most versions, it's set in some exotic Turkish land, and instead of it being ruled by the Sugarplum Fairy, it's ruled by a strange version of Herr Drosselmeyer.
If you're not at all familiar with the Nutcracker ballet, this version is easily one of the better filmed versions you will come across, so it's the best place to start.
Now for a bit of bad news. This version isn't currently available on DVD. However, it is available for purchase or rental on iTunes, and can also be seen on Hulu.