In 1816, the German author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann published the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. While many of Hoffman's works have gone on to have great influence in pop culture — the Powell and Pressburger film The Tales of Hoffman remains one of the great cinematic achievements in 20th-century cinema — it is this little story of a young girl's toy that comes to life on Christmas Eve that remains the most iconic.
Like many stories of its kind, The Nutcracker is one of those narratives that you just know, even if you've never seen or read or encountered any of the myriad adaptations of it. Everyone can hum a little bit of Tchaikovsky's instantly recognizable music from the ballet adaptation, even if it's only because you heard it on a car commercial. We simply accept this story as an integral part of Christmas, like Santa Claus and carol singing. According to a 2013 piece by the New York Times, American ballet companies generate around 40% of their annual revenue from seasonal performances of The Nutcracker. Even people who know nothing about ballet know that music and the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The original story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a curious tale that could only have come from a German romanticist in the 1800s. It's a surprisingly dark blending of fantasy and reality that manages to somehow be sweetly innocent and scary as all hell. For one thing, the villainous mouse king has seven heads. Marie, the girl who becomes infatuated with the nutcracker toy given to her by her eccentric godfather, is 7 years old and is more troubled by her parents' unwillingness to believe what she has seen than the strange battles of the mice and nutcrackers themselves. A lot of the story is focused on Marie trying to overcome the smothering restrictions of imagination put upon her by her parents, making it an oddly forward-thinking story of the liberation of a young woman's mind from the expectations of her time. That doesn’t make it any less creepy when the Nutcracker — now a handsome gentleman — turns up at Marie’s door and asks for her hand in marriage when she’s aged 8.
What remains most striking about the many adaptations of The Nutcracker is how many of them are explicitly aimed at children. There aren’t boatloads of dark and edgy Nutcrackers here, which is probably for the best. Crucially, many adaptations choose to focus more on Tchaikovsky’s ballet than Hoffmann’s novella. This is curious given the inherently uncinematic nature of ballet and the sheer difficulty in translating it to the big screen. And the ballet itself is a much softer, more family-friendly piece of entertainment. In that story, the world of magic is just a temporary escape for Marie, now called Clara. There are sweets and dancing and flowers and not a single multi-headed tyrannical rodent monarch trying to spoil the fun. It’s not hard to see why such a story would be enduringly popular with children, but how do you even begin to adapt that?
Now, with Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms out today, we’re taking a look at some of the best, worst, and weirdest adaptations of The Nutcracker. For the sake of simplicity, we’re looking at adaptations of both Hoffmann’s original story and the Tchaikovsky ballet suit. This is in no way an exhaustive list of adaptations and only represents what we considered the most notable or talked about.
GOOD: Maurice Sendak’s The Nutcracker
It should surprise nobody to hear that legendary children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak hated the Tchaikovsky version of The Nutcracker. The beloved grouch of the children’s publishing sector thought the adaptation was too treacly and took away from Hoffmann’s weirdness. Sendak told NPR in 2001, "The whole ballet is about her and for the most part you get her in act one, and then she discreetly disappears for the rest of the work. My feeling is this has to be disturbing to children." And the guy who wrote Where The Wild Things Are certainly knows a thing or two about scaring the crap out of kids for their own entertainment. Sendak's The Nutcracker is so very Sendakian: It’s faithful to Hoffmann’s tale — the seven-headed mouse king is back — and manages to tread a fine line between whimsy and bonkers. He also plays up the subtext of the story acting as a metaphor for Clara’s adolescence. She is thrown into a whole new world of discovery beyond anything her parents would ever let her experience herself, and she finds it far more fulfilling than the future her mundane reality holds. Sendak firmly believed that kids were smart enough to deal with the kinds of tones and topics he liked to depict, and his take on The Nutcracker is testament to that.
BAD: The Nutcracker in 3D
Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky's career has dramatically veered between respected award-winning dramas in his native language to big-budget American action shlock like Tango and Cash. It made sense for a Russian film-maker to want to tackle one of the great cultural institutions of his country, and it was Konchalovsky’s dream project for close to two decades, but everything about The Nutcracker in 3D beyond its sweet intent is an unmitigated disaster. The ballet becomes a traditional musical, with Tchaikovsky's music given lyrics by Tim Rice, but there’s no fantastical dancing to accompany it. Clara/Marie becomes Mary and is played by Elle Fanning, while her toymaker godfather becomes her uncle Albert Einstein, which allows Nathan Lane the thankless job of singing a song about the theory of relativity. Yet none of this matches the catastrophe that is the film's decision to turn the rat king's plan into a massive metaphor for the Holocaust. Yes, really. The Rat King, played by John Turturro, is dressed like a Nazi, and his fascistic troops snatch toys from children to toss them into furnaces until they are incinerated into blackout clouds billowing from tall chimneys. Now imagine all that but in 3D. This entire adaptation was grossly misjudged but it’s also a depressing viewing experience from a purely technical point-of-view. Seldom has a $90-million movie looked this cheap or ugly. Needless to say that it was a massive flop, barely making back a tenth of its budget.
WEIRD: Care Bears Nutcracker Suite
Ah, the Care Bears. Even in the 1980s, when children's cartoons seemed to exist solely to market toys, there was something especially cynical about these achingly cute plushies who preached peace and love and caring while being oh so very marketable. It's also easy to forget just how damn popular these things were in their time. The first Care Bears Movie was a bigger hit than Disney’s animated movie of that year, The Black Cauldron. But it is what it is. Toddlers need entertainment too, and damn the unwitting parents who must be subjected to it at the same time. None of the Care Bears movies are especially interesting and most of them seem to have been made for pennies, but Care Bears Nutcracker Suite is astonishingly cheap. If you were to tell me that this film was made in two weeks with long lunch breaks, I’d believe you 100%. Here, the Care Bears become the central characters for the Nutcracker retelling, although it's a loose retelling at best. As with all things Care Bears, it's sickly sweet to the point where you fear for the future of your teeth. Mercifully, it's only an hour long, but it’s still a baffling relic of a time when the Care Bears ruled all.
GOOD: Nutcracker: The Motion Picture
Not so much a movie as a filmed version of a ballet production, this version comes courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, which takes its story and stylistic inspiration from Maurice Sendak's book. The narrative is fleshed out to be more in line with Hoffmann's novella and Clara's story is explicitly a coming-of-age one. When she journeys to the world of the Nutcracker, she grows into an adult woman and has a now age-appropriate romantic liaison with the handsome nutcracker. A rivalry forms between the prince and the evil one-eyed Dasha, who is played by the dancer that plays Drosselmeyer, thus adding a whole new psychosexual dynamic to Clara's fantastical puberty. If the saccharine simplicity of your typical Nutcracker productions isn’t for you then this may be the best introduction to the Tchaikovsky ballet, especially for older viewers. However, it isn’t the most skilfully filmed production so the experience isn’t especially cinematic. Then again, it doesn’t necessarily need to be.
BAD: A Nutcracker Christmas
Ah, the Hallmark Channel. You know exactly what you’re going to get from these movies, and there are always dozens of them to suit your every whim for sweet-hearted and stridently chaste romances between somewhat familiar and almost exclusively white faces. Complaining about the artistic qualities of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies is like moaning about the wetness of water: What the hell were you expecting? As it is, A Nutcracker Christmas is fine, but not Peak Hallmark as one desired. The set-up is centered on The Nutcracker and not technically an adaptation of it, but at least this one has actual ballet in it, and who doesn’t love a cute romance between dancers? A Nutcracker Christmas is just too generic to warrant a response bolder than "Eh."
GOOD: Boris Stepantsev's The Nutcracker
It makes total sense that the Soviet animated version of The Nutcracker, produced in 1973, would be the most dance focused of the lot. Boris Stepantsev was widely considered one of the best animators of his era in his homeland. His Nutcracker is frequently very beautiful, with backgrounds that look like Impressionist paintings. The character work is incredibly expressive, eschewing the need for dialogue. Much of the film plays like a Russian version of Fantasia (a film that also includes a section set to music from the Nutcracker Suite). An American telecast added narration but it works best without it.
WEIRD: Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale
Tom and Jerry were the anarchic alternative to Disney’s sweetness during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the slapstick aficionados whose never-ending literal battle of cat and mouse harkened back to the days of silent cinema. It’s a concept that works best with no dialogue and no plot. What more could you ask for beyond great slapstick? Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale is at least better than the Care Bears’ attempt at the story because it’s less sickly, much shorter and keeps some of the original energy from the series’ prime. But it’s such a clash of ideas, somehow too ambitious and incredibly lazy at the same time. After you watch enough of these Nutcracker crossover cartoons, you start to wonder why any of this is happening beyond the convenience of adapting a public domain property. At least this one’s less than 50 minutes long.
GOOD: Nutcracker Fantasy
This Japanese stop-motion animation seems to have been mostly forgotten by American audiences, despite the fact that it received an English dub with none other than Christopher Lee as Uncle Drosselmeyer. It's a shame because Nutcracker Fantasy is a striking watch, one that captures much of the romantic dream-like nature of the original story. The narrative arguably has more in common with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, but those tales prove fitting bedfellows for The Nutcracker, and otherwise, this film sticks more to the story than most of the adaptations on this list. For one thing, Nutcracker Fantasy commits to a multi-headed rat monarch, although this one is five heads short. The animation is jumpy and harkens memories of the Rankin/Bass productions — very fitting for Christmas. Hoffmann’s tale was all about rejecting realism and Nutcracker Fantasy best exemplifies the hallucinogenic qualities of the story, particularly in one lushly animated scene where Clara and her Nutcracker prince take various forms and dance together. Of all the Nutcracker adaptations covered here, this is the hidden gem that deserves a second life. Keep an eye out for the Hello Kitty cameo!