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Movie Review : 'Nutcracker' Stumbles On Screen

November 26, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

There is every reason to approach "Nutcracker, the Motion Picture" (citywide) with the highest hopes. Its director is Carroll Ballard, whose eye and sure touch made "The Black Stallion" among a half-dozen of the best young people's films ever made, and who followed that with the haunting "Never Cry Wolf."

The design is by Maurice Sendak, geographer extraordinaire of the darker corners of children's psyches; illustrator and author ("Where the Wild Things Are," "Outside Over There" and countless more); and scenic designer of opera and now ballet.

The sets and costumes are glorious--the neoclassic period for Clara's house and family; a riotous seraglio for the second act; a pasha in a vast billowing turban like a Turk's head knot; a multi-headed Mouse King; a tiger under a red fez. It is the Sendak spirit triumphant. But as a dance film, or as coherent story, "The Nutcracker" (MPAA-rated G) is not only bad, it's boring. Part of the problem is the company: the Pacific Northwest Ballet, for whom Sendak mounted this vastly successful production in 1983. It owns it and, in all politeness, it is not one of the legendary companies of the world.

And so we have those fanciful designs--so wonderful that Lincoln Kirstein, New York City Ballet director, said that their magnificence "filled (him) with a violent greed and envy"--and a level of performance you would endure only if your child was third from the left in the front row.

Of the soloists, only the adult Clara (Patricia Barker), and Hugh Bigney in the dual role of Drosselmeyer/Pasha (which is mostly mime) are at the level they should be. The corps is cheerful, energetic and apparently unable to count.

But the other half of the problem is in Ballard's hands. There are moments that seem to promise great magic--the opening sequence in Drosselmeyer's workshop, or a shot in which the child Clara, huge as a billboard, looms outside the magical house her mysterious godfather has bought her. The editing is possibly the worst I can recall in a dance film; it makes it impossible for us to follow the arc of a lift or the extension of an arm or a leg. We see faces when we want to see whole figures; our attention is directed to a shoulder or a head when it's a pirouette that's being danced. (Unless Ballard is cutting away out of kindness, which is a possibility.)

The film hints that Drosselmeyer is the bringer of "the wickedest dream" to pre-adolescent Clara (Julie Harris' identifiable voice is the narrator). In fact, all sorts of darkly suggestive glances pass between Clara and this teasing godfather. But what they are meant to convey is anyone's guess. Mostly, Drosselmeyer acts like someone you warn young girls about.

Clara will change from the child of the party (Vanessa Sharp) to the young woman who journeys to a magical island, complete with a lascivious pasha, and back again--falling in her naughty dream until she wakes up, a child again. But there is no poignant sense of loss and there's barely a sense of coherence.

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