Christmastime and The Nutcracker go hand in hand. Even if you’ve never seen the ballet, you know the tunes such as “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” So, it seems almost natural after about 100 years after Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music, Hollywood would come calling with a big budget spectacle.
There have been multiple adaptations most of them not good. There was a 1990 animated movie, The Nutcracker Prince, that got bad reviews. And then there was Nutcracker: The Motion Picture in 1986 directed by Carroll Ballard of The Black Stallion fame which got good reviews for the set but not for Ballard’s direction.
In the early 1990s, producer Arnon Milchan put together The Nutcracker with the New York City Ballet and directed by Emile Ardolino, who had made the first Dirty Dancing and Sister Act movies as well as Chances Are. Ardolino had also won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for his movie He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ which was about Jacques d’Amboise who founded the National Dance Institute. Ardolino was the one who had known about Patrick Swayze being a dancer even though he had specified “No Dancing” on his head shots because of a knee injury and was able to talk him into doing Dirty Dancing.
So, with the New York Ballet doing a performance of The Nutrcracker by a man who knew a thing or two about the world of dance, what could go wrong? Enter Kit Culkin. By the time The Nutcracker went into production, Macaulay Culkin was the most popular child actor of the time. And his father, Kit, was one ruthless son of a bitch of a manager. Mac had been hired for the roles of title character, the prince, and Dosselmeyer’s nephew. There’s no dialogue in the movie, so it’s basically a reaction role for the Home Alone star as he mostly smiles every now and again, but you can tell he’s really not into it. As for his performances, he does some jumps and hops and twirls, but there is no rhythm.
I mention there is no dialogue but Milchan and Ardolino decided to add a narration performed by Kevin Kline that periodically appears throughout the hour and a half of footage. It was this dialogue that pissed Kit off that he told Milchan to get rid of it or else Mac wouldn’t do any publicity for the movie. Ardolino, only 50, was in no shape to deal with these 11th hour issues as he was battling AIDS and his end was near. He would die of AIDS complications on Nov. 20, 1993 at his home in California, four days short of the movie’s premiere.
So, Milchan, who was producing the movie through his company Regency Enterprises, just told Kit to go to Hell. And The Nutcracker opened on Nov. 24, 1993 with Kevin Kline’s narration and absolutely no publicity or marketing by Mac. It’s reported Kit was also questioning which close-ups would be used of Mac. But by the fall of 1993, Hollywood was getting fed up with Kit’s outrageous demands.
Incidentally, The Nutcracker would be Ardolino’s last feature movie. He would also direct the TV movie Gypsy, a musical biolographical comedy-drama, based on life of Gypsy Rose Lee, who was put through the same ringer Mac and the other Culkin actors were before their mother Patricia Brentup separated from Kit in 1995.
Produced on a $19 million budget, The Nutcracker bombed only making about $2.1 million at the box office. It opened at No. 16 that week. But I don’t think Mac’s lack of publicity is mostly to blame. The movie is joyless and dull from beginning to end. Ardolino films the movie as if someone if observing the play from up in the mezzanine. There really is no way to film a movie based on a ballet unless you work the camera a way in which we don’t see it’s not a ballet. Because none of the actors speak, they most react and their reactions are overdramatic.
There are a few close-ups but they’re not really extreme. It looks too much like Mac is wearing bright red lipstick and when he appears as the Nutcracker, I can’t help but laugh of how ludicrous it seems for a tween who isn’t really tall to go after the Mouse King, twice his size. He would later make the appropriately titled Getting Even With Dad alongside Ted Danson in 1994 and then appear in the live-action/animated movie The Pagemaster, where he looked younger, and then as the title character in Richie Rich before leaving the industry for the rest of the 1990s saying he wanted to live a normal life. You can tell that Mac is already bored with acting in this movie, probably because his dad was burning every bridge he could like Gen. Sherman.
But even the narration by Kline doesn’t help and just adds to the confusion on who’s who. I think when you go see a ballet, they’d hand you a program so you could see who is who and what is what. You go into The Nutcracker blindly with only a vague idea if you’re not familiar with the story. And after an hour and a half of seeing people dance from far off, you really don’t have as much excitement as you would seeing it live in person.
This might explain why no one else has bothered to tackle the performance in a movie. Some things just work best in the medium they’re intended for. What you have see is the equivalent of a bored English literature class having to read from a play in their textbooks sitting at their desks.
What do you think? Please comment.