On stage and screen, Mel Brooks' 'The Producers' is all about two theatrical producers who raise more money than necessary for an intentionally awful show, "Springtime for Hitler," so that the play will close immediately, the books will go unchecked and they can take the money and run.
It's easy to wonder if -- with its jetpack-wearing Nazi-like rats shooting at children from the skies and its great white sharks being electrocuted for fun -- 'The Nutcracker in 3D' isn't the result of some similar scheme. At the reported cost of $90 million, director Andrei Konchalovsky has framed the classic ballet against imagery undeniably evocative of WWII Germany, and that's just the first of the film's many problems.
It's 1920s Vienna, and Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane, himself of 'The Producers'!) has brought home a nutcracker and a dollhouse for his niece and nephew to play with. Sure enough, Mary (Elle Fanning) brings them to life with the power of imagination, only to discover that the wooden nutcracker -- "Call me N.C.," of course -- is actually a cursed prince whose kingdom has been overrun by the Rat King (John Turturro) and his soldiers. Together, Mary and N.C. work to stop him from "rat-ifying" the entire populace and destroying every toy in town.
Did I mention that Uncle Albert is the Albert Einstein? Lane hams it up with an all-caps Austrian accent, making needless asides to the audience and belting out nonsensical songs about the theory of relativity to the tune of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." (Did I mention that it's a musical? The "Christmastime for Hitler" theory fits...) Often acting opposite digital elements, Fanning plays fine against thin air, though the difference between her apparent age and acting ability is quite distinct between this (reportedly shot in 2007) and this month's 'Somewhere'.
When not an actual human boy (played by Charlie Rowe), N.C. is rather annoyingly voiced by actress Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle of the 'Harry Potter' series), coming off less like Pinocchio and more like Terrance and/or Phillip of "South Park" fame. His mother is the Snow Fairy, inadvertently dressed as Lady Gaga, while Hermes from "Futurama" pops up as the Little Drummer Boy (who is now Jamaican). That pretty much leaves us with Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig, chewing up the scenery even when his mouth hasn't mutated into a disturbing rat snout.
The anachronisms are staggering (Uncle Albert: "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you"), the accents are a mess, and the set, costume and character design are all disturbingly reminiscent of the Holocaust. (For example, we're treated to the sight of smokestacks on the horizon as they issue black clouds of smoke from the relentless burning of toys.) Guillermo del Toro united the themes of adult war and childhood fantasy rather strikingly in 'Pan's Labyrinth,' but to put it mildly, Konchalovsky ('Tango & Cash') is no Guillermo del Toro, nor the next Terry Gilliam, nor even half of a second-rate Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
The whole thing is just so astoundingly wrongheaded: it's 'The Nutcracker,' only with no ballet and a story culled together from 'Peter Pan,' 'Pinocchio,' 'Alice in Wonderland,' 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Toy Story,' 'Metropolis' and the Third Reich in general, all topped with a steampunk streak, awful songs and an even worse after-the-fact 3D conversion. This isn't Tchaikovsky's holiday classic as you remember it, but with a little luck, our children and our children's children will remember it for what it is: a $90-million lump of coal.