A Celebration

Amos Lassen

This screen version of the holiday classic “The Nutcracker” was designed by children’s story author and artist Maurice Sendak, and written for the first time to be as close as possible to the original story. It is a lavish, exciting and heart-warming celebration of dance, of music and of life. As the film opens we see 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. Here “The Nutcracker” has been with great care and considerable beauty. It was directed by Caroll Ballard.

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.

In its own way, “The Nutcracker” illustrates the basic dilemma of ballet films, which is that they capture forever something that should be transitory and evanescent. This does not mean that this ballet is not as good as others but it lacks the suspense of a live performance. Ballet films are useful as records of performances, but they rarely excite me very much since cinema achieves a victory over time, and that

Maurice Sendak, writer and illustrator of children’s books, designed the fantastical sets and based the story on E.T.A. Hoffman’s original fairytale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The music is still Tchaikovsky but the themes here confront darker dreams of childhood — the heroine Clara’s sexual awakening, the sibling rivalry between Clara and her horrid little brother Fritz, and the ambiguity of her relationship with her godfather Herr Dr. Drosselmeier.

The costumes are magnificent and the sets inspired making this a visual feast. Thirteen-year-old Vanessa Sharp plays the adolescent Clara, a bittersweet beauty torn between her toy Nutcracker and the prince of her dreams. Patricia Barker, the elegant ballerina who dances the grown-up dream Clara, is squired by Wade Walthall, who plays a swarthy, swashbuckling Nutcracker Prince. The familiar music is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

There are three basic joys of ”The Nutcracker” — the settings, the music and the costumes. However, this version shoots for r something more. It’s an ornate film that takes a sophisticated and ambitious approach to its material and we see why there’s no good substitute for simply holding the camera still and letting dancers do what they do best.

“‘Nutcracker: The Motion Picture,” which opens today at the Ziegfeld, presents members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in a production that takes some of its inspiration from E. T. A. Hoffman’s 1816 fairy tale ”The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” upon which Marius Petipa’s libretto for Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet was based. The restored material here is darker than the familiar ”Nutcracker,” as is much of the film. Director Ballard adds handsome but irrelevant touches as an opening crafts montage (in which sets are drawn, wood is carved, and molten metal is poured into molds). has given much of the film an unexpectedly somber. The opening party sequence is performed in a style halfway between ballet and ordinary motion. When Hugh Bigney appears in the role of Herr Drosselmeier, the toymaker who gives the Christmas nutcracker to his goddaughter Clara, he looks startlingly villainous in the role. Bigney is indeed a surprisingly creepy figure in a work that’s usually thought of as light.

Sendak’s sets and creatures and the nutcracker itself, are charmingly sinister in their own ways. But they are also so identifiably his so while this ”Nutcracker” has a distinctively serious mood and Mr. Sendak’s trademark touches, it has no real style of its own. The most enjoyable parts of it, like the snowflakes’ dance or the Waltz of the Flowers, are those presented in the most traditional and airy manner. Mr. Ballard’s aerial shots of the latter are among his more brilliant touches.

For the most part, the dancing, however, doesn’t suit the music’s rhythm and the camera rarely takes the straightforward long view that would make the dancing most enjoyable and plain. The film works best when its prettiness is allowed to come through in the most uncomplicated manner. Late in the film, during the Nutcracker Suite, there is an extended and uncluttered dance sequence of the sort most patrons have undoubtedly been waiting for.

Ballard probably intended that the film have its own highly innovative brand of magic and it does, at times. Since this is the only feature-film version, ”The Nutcracker” remains good as it is but it could have been so much better.

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