December is upon us, and you’ve probably heard a very familiar ballet score dozens of times by now. The Nutcracker ballet is a Christmas tradition and many people’s introduction to classical music and the works of Tchaikovsky. The ballet is based on 1844’s The Story of the Nutcracker by Alexandre Dumas (better known for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers), which itself is an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Described by folklore scholar Jack Zipes as an “anti-fairy tale”, the story of a young girl’s romance with a wooden doll and his blood feud with a seven-headed rodent is as charming as it is bizarre. The 200+ year story has been told dozens of times. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but since the story is so prima facie bonkers, every one of them is unique. Allow me to introduce some of my favorites:
Made in the then-Soviet Union by the legendary studio Soyuzmultfilm, this fuses the Nutcracker narrative with the “Cinderella” fairytale format. Instead of Clara, a rich girl who’s given the Nutcracker as a present from her godfather, our heroine is a humble maid who befriends an enchanted prince-turned-holiday ornament in her wealthy boss’s Christmas parlor, and then must help him fend off an army of mice and their three-headed leader. There is no dialogue; rather, the action moves in sync to Tchaikovsky’s score with some incredibly expressive character animation. It’s only 25 minutes, and it’s worth every second. If you have the time to spare, it’s available in full on YouTube.
Nutcracker Fantasy (1979)
This one may be my favorite of the whole lot. Created by Sanrio Studios in Japan (best known as the creators of Hello Kitty), this is a stop-motion movie which is only too fitting for a story about living toys. Further, it gives it an aesthetic link to some of the most nostalgic holiday classics like Rudolph, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Little Drummer Boy, and more. In this version of the story, Clara receives the titular toy from her uncle Drosselmeyer, then follows some strange dreams of a two-headed Mouse Queen into the Kingdom of the Dolls. There, she and the handsome Captain Franz team up to break a spell on the princess, and then Clara must learn the meaning of true love to save Franz from the Mouse Queen’s final curse. Every frame and visual is breathtakingly beautiful ranging from surreal German Expressionist-level frights (looking at you, Ragman) to saccharine fantasies at the Palace of Happiness. The music is fantastic, combining Tchaikovsky’s timeless score with some late-seventies synth goodness. Special mention to “Click Clock Fantasy,” sung by the late great Christopher Lee and a seasonal mandatory in my Christmas music rotation. Again, this is available in full on YouTube, and it comes heartily recommended.
Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986)
Two words: Maurice Sendak. Somehow, the legendary children’s book author and illustrator wound up as the production designer for this filmed production of the show from the Pacific Northwest Ballet. His unique and striking visuals own every frame of the movie; highlights include the design of the Nutcracker (who actually looks like he can crack nuts instead of being a generically good-looking toy soldier with a beard), the Mouse King’s ever-increasing number of heads, and a remarkable “How did they do that?” feat of stagecraft with the growing tree. The dancing itself, of course, is also beautiful, especially Clara’s coming-of-age pas de deux with her Nutcracker Prince after breaking the spell and embarking on their adventure in the Land of Sweets. Available for free on YouTube and Tubi.
The Nutcracker (1993)
On a Home Alone kick this holiday season? Have I got a movie for you. Like the Pacific Northwest version immediately above, this is another filmed production of the stage show as performed by the New York City Ballet. Using George Balanchine’s choreography, the main characters are performed by children, and Macaulay Culkin plays the title role. He brings remarkably similar energy to this role as he did to his most famous part. The Nutcracker seems less like a regal soldier embroiled in a feud with his seven-headed enemy and more like a bright-eyed kid who’s stumbled into an adventure of a lifetime and can’t believe he’s getting away with it. Admittedly, there are some pretty glaring issues with this version: for one thing, the camera is often positioned in such a way that you can’t see the actual dancing. And of course, Act II features the infamous “Arabian Coffee” and “Chinese Tea” dances, performed by white dancers in “ethnic” costumes, a problem dating back to the ballet’s origins in 1892. Still, when the movie works, it’s fantastic, and when the camera holds still long enough to showcase the performers, there are some true standouts like the Snowflake Waltz and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Of all the renditions included here, it’s the one that does the least different from the standard stage show, but that needn’t be a bad thing. If you’re looking for the warmth of a familiar classic, consider finding space for this film this holiday season. Available on YouTube.
Barbie in the Nutcracker (2001)
Call it nostalgia’s rosy tint, but Barbie’s debut direct-to-VHS movie holds a special place in my heart. The animation hasn’t exactly aged gracefully, but the movie is one heck of a serotonin machine. Hoping to inspire confidence in young Kelly, Barbie tells her version of the Nutcracker story, in which Clara and the Nutcracker embark on an adventure through the Land of Sweets hoping to find the Sugar Plum Princess, a “kind, clever, and brave” enchantress who can help them find the missing heir to the throne and defeat the usurper Mouse King (who only has one head in this version, but given the 2001 rendering technology, that may be for the best). Weirdly enough, this movie probably puts in the most effort into developing the Clara/Nutcracker romance to the point that child-me was genuinely heartbroken when the dream ends and Clara returns to her own world. The animators rotoscoped actual dancing from members of the NYC Ballet for portions of the film, and while it can’t compete with the live actors in 1986 and 1993, I can’t help but find it charming. But the absolute best part of the film is Tim Curry’s performance as the Mouse King, chewing the scenery in a way that terrified me as a child but has me in stitches as an adult. Yes, it’s flawed, but I love it all the same and had to include it on this list. Unfortunately, this is also the only one of the list that’s behind a paywall, but if you have $3.99 to spend, you can find it on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, and Apple TV.
And that’s all I can honestly report on, but there’s so much more material out there if you are up for it. If you want a satirical and sexy take on the story, The Slutcracker is a thing that exists and you can rent it for $15. Nostalgic for some classic cartoon characters? Tom and Jerry, the Care Bears, the Sesame Street gang, and Mickey Mouse all have their versions of the story. If you have more courage than I do, maybe even check out some of the more infamously “bad” versions of the story, like The Nuttiest Nutcracker or The Nutcracker 3D. Tis the season, so get cracking (heh) and I hope you have as much fun as I did.