Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Good Twist and Variation...or a Rip-off of a Classic Ballet? A Look at Changes in The Nutcracker

So I guess my question is, does change to an original classic piece ruin it, or enhance it?

Now that it is December and we are in the Christmas season, now is a good time to write about this. Last month I discovered a trailer for a 2010 3D film version of the classic Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker. Check it out:

Here's the thing. I grew up with The Nutcracker. My family and I would try to go see it every year. It is one of my fondest childhood holiday memories and actually might be the first theatrical show I had ever seen in my life, so this show is a big deal because it triggered my interest in theater. I remember the dancing, the costumes, the scenery, etc. I am attached to it.

Before I go on, allow me to provide you with the basic premise of The Nutcracker with this simple video. You'll probably need this information to understand what I am talking about. Something I forgot to include in this clip is that the "Land of Sweets" is also referred to as the "Land of the Sugar Plums." This is actually the title I grew up with. No two versions of the actual ballet are the same, but they all seem to follow a basic structure.

This 2010 movie isn't the only version of The Nutcracker that exists. There are plenty of other versions as well. Even Barbie had her own version in 2001, which doesn't really follow the set up of the original ballet in any way. What I am wondering is, do these many different versions enhance The Nutcracker and continue and perhaps strengthen the tradition it brings to the holiday season by making changes and adding different flairs to it, or do these flairs make The Nutcracker out to be a watered down joke and not as much of a classic as it once was? Should it just be left alone in its original state, should it be altered for creative purposes, or does it make any difference?

I guess you can argue that there are plenty of remakes of anything. Movies have been remade, songs have been remade, so this shouldn't be an issue. However, that doesn't mean that these remakes are necessarily good. My argument is that this is a ballet with classical music composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky we are talking about. A lot of times it seems like dance isn't as showcased or appreciated as it should be in today's world. Today, in popular culture, dance is people in the background bouncing around in little clothing. There's not much of a focus on the art behind it. A reason why I like "So You Think You Can Dance" is because that show tries to rekindle passion in regards to dance. I think that might be why I don't take too kindly to other versions of The Nutcracker. There are too many different storylines and not enough focus on dance! It's odd that I would be saying this because in a majority of my other blog posts I discuss on how to improve storylines. In this one, however, I recognize how in The Nutcracker, dance is more of the focus rather than the actual story.

This has gotten me to thinking about why the Mouse King, the ballet's villain, is so evil. So many of these different versions always try to come up with explanations as to why he tries to take the Prince's (whom he turns into a nutcracker) kingdom away from him. In fact, it seems to be a reason why these versions are even created. They find something missing from the ballet and decide to use their own imaginations to fill that void. I can relate to this because it sounds like something I would do with my own writing and I appreciate creativity. But does it really matter? When I was a kid watching it, it never really occurred to me why the Mouse King was the bad guy, and the lack of reasons didn't alter my enjoyment of the ballet in any way. The battle sequence between the toys and the mice was actually my favorite part that I looked forward to it each time I saw it. I still love that part to this day. I think here and there I may have wondered what his motives are, but I never really sat down and truly thought about it. 

What annoys me about the 2010 movie is how the Mouse King doesn't even look like a mouse! He looks more like a Dr. Seuss character in a live action film. Growing up I remember the Mouse King having multiple heads and looking like a rodent, considering he is a MOUSE King. Also, he actually scared the crap out of me at times. Recently, the Mouse Kings don't look as frightening. At one point in the trailer the Mouse King randomly hisses...or growls...or whatever you want to call that. Is this supposed to add some scariness to his character? Well, it doesn't succeed. The growl seems to be just another ploy added to a trailer to add some exciting shock value. Randomly hissing out of nowhere does not add the same level of intensity the original Mouse Kings have.

Another thing that bugs me a bit about the numerous versions of The Nutcracker is the constant debate of the main little girl's first name. I grew up thinking that her name is "Clara," but then I find versions of her named "Marie," and finally, in this 3D film, apparently her name is "Mary." Just choose a name! Why does this kid have so many first names? Perhaps it has to do with cultural versions of it, and I don't hate the name "Marie" for her, but I just find it odd how a main character doesn't have an official first name. I also found out that the uncle who gives the little girl the Nutcracker is called Uncle Albert in the 3D version. Uncle Albert? The original guy's name is Uncle Drosselmeyer! What they're pretty much doing is Americanizing German characters. Yes, this is supposed to be a German story in a German setting. There's no need for that. American audiences can still enjoy a flick even though the characters' names are a little bit cultural. Oh! And the Mouse King is actually called the "Rat King." Wow, they are seriously going out of their way to make this guy bad, aren't they? Um, did the word "rat" just sound more evil to the writers? Hey, at least the Barbie version got a majority the names right! However, they do make her Uncle Drosselmeyer her Aunt Drosselmeyer...

From what I hear, the 3D film didn't do too well. This does not come as a surprise, people.

But another thing I often wonder is if Clara (I'm calling her Clara. I refuse to call her anything else.) and the Nutcracker Prince fall in love. Obviously they probably aren't going to touch on this in the 3D film because they have children playing the characters, but it is suggested in the ballet itself sometimes, because it did cross my mind as a kid. But it is made obvious in the Barbie version.

I'm noticing that part of the magic of The Nutcracker is making a majority of the story up for interpretation. As long as the audience knows the gist of the story and what is going on, the minor details aren't much of a bother. However, the Barbie version doesn't leave anything up for interpretation. I actually enjoy the Barbie version and own my own VHS copy of it (It's also on YouTube if you want to check it out.), but it's just not traditional! I mean, one of my biggest problems with the Barbie version is that the dances are all mushed together at the end when the Mouse King is defeated, a feat that also takes place at the very end. Dances and music that should be during the Christmas party scene or any other scene in the actual ballet take place sporadically throughout the movie out of context. Scenes like these prove that it does not follow the original structure of The Nutcracker at all. The rest of the film is dedicated to the storyline of them traveling the mystical land, developing the love story, and other additional ideas that aren't in the original ballet. It may be a good creative story, but it is not necessarily The Nutcracker.

E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote the novel, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which the ballet is based. Only Hoffmann knows the real deal. So I guess there could've been arguments back then about remaking a book into a ballet as well. I don't mind if movies remake ballets, as long as they do it right. 

Okay, so I just ranted a lot and gave plenty of points, so let me try to answer my original question: Do changes to The Nutcracker ruin it or make it better? It definitely depends on the individual. I don't see how any altered version can surpass the original ballet, but that's not to say that it is a horrible movie in itself. It also depend on your age. If a child watches a newer more enhanced version of The Nutcracker, with no previous knowledge of the original ballet, he or she may think it is the most epic piece of work ever. Maybe this whole time I am comparing film versions to the stage ballets. We all know that film and stage are two entirely different mediums so that isn't entirely fair. More can be done with fun so filmmakers take advantage of the technology to use their imaginations.

The changes I noticed have a lot to do with audience and popular culture. In the 2010 version, it seems that they incorporate modern forms of technology, such as what is used in the story itself and the fact that this is the first 3D version of The Nutcracker from what I see. I'm also thinking that because these film versions seem to be gearing towards children, they include storyline and slapstick to keep them interested. However, as a person who was a fan of the ballet as a child without anything additional, everything about it kept me entertained except for one scene, and that is the final dance, the Pas de Deux, between the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. It is beautifully danced and the music is just as beautiful, but boy is it boring. To me, it is the longest routine in the whole ballet. Well, at least it feels that way. The other dances can drag on a bit as well, so maybe the time that was once dedicated to the routines is now dedicated to storylines to once again keep children interested.

I think what is best is taking it as a piece standing on its own, rather than comparing it to the original ballet. Though that can be hard to do considering the similarities they have, it should be fine to watch and considered Christmas enjoyment just like the original piece.


  1. I LOVE the Barbie version I'll have you know! lol I first saw it after the Thanksgiving parade on the year it premiered. I even have the freaking coloring book for it. Obviously, it's not the real thing but I think it's a great way for youngsters to be introduced to classic theatre/ ballet/ performing arts. I had seen real The Nutcracker before in first grade, but the Barbie one helped with the added dialogue since I was still young, but at least I know the gist of the story and when I go to see the real performance again, I'll definitely appreciate it more because of the early exposure I received:)

  2. For the record, I never said I disliked the Barbie version. I wrote right in my piece that I enjoy it. lol

    However, you make a very good point about how you can appreciate the stage ballet more because of the early exposure you received through the Barbie film. Children can understand the ballet because of the film. I never thought of it that way really. However, my only argument is that I still feel that the Barbie version doesn't necessarily do justice to the staged ballet version.