The opening shots of "The Nutcracker" show an illustrator setting out his tools and beginning to sketch some of the sets and characters in the story. The drawings are by Maurice Sendak, an artist whose work inspired this production, and they supply a promising beginning: Perhaps this film will liberate "The Nutcracker" from its fate as an annual holiday chestnut.
But, no, the movie doesn't succeed in breaking out into an interesting artistic achievement. It has been staged with great care and considerable beauty but it is nevertheless just a respectable version of a cultural artifact. There is no reason to see the film instead of attending one of the innumerable live productions that are available every holiday season.
The movie's director is Carroll Ballard, the great cinematographer whose first two films as a director were the wonderful "The Black Stallion" and the scarcely less wonderful "Never Cry Wolf." Both of those movies were big-scale, lyrical, brawny outdoor productions about man and nature. What attracted Ballard to the fragile and cutesy-poo "Nutcracker"? Watching the film, I never got the feeling of freedom and joy he communicated so clearly in his other films.
The movie is based on a production by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, designed by Sendak in collaboration with Kent Stowell, the company's artistic director. On stage, it must have been a good-looking production, and Ballard adds some specifically cinematic touches, including a fourth wall in many scenes. One of his most striking moments comes when he uses optical effects to show dream-dancers on the bedsheets of a huge image of a sleeping girl.
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