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Scarecrow on Seattle: NUTCRACKER: THE MOTION PICTURE

In appreciation and recognition of Seattle's long and illustrious film history, we are proud to partner with the Seattle Office of Film + Music to bring you reviews of movies made in the Pacific Northwest with an emphasis on how these films showcase the region's many filmable locations.

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986)

As far as holiday traditions in Seattle go, it's hard to find one as renowned or universally beloved as the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker (though the Grand Illusion Cinema's screenings of It's A Wonderful Life, now in its 42nd year, run a very close second). For nearly 30 years, Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak's collaboration has been thrilling adults and children, and it's no wonder. For a person uninitiated into ballet, it's a perfect, eminently accessible experience. Tchaikovsky's music, especially "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," is one of the more recognizable classical music pieces you'll hear. The narrative is a quintessential "young girl coming-of-age" tale, brought to life by a company of incredibly talented dancers. And who better to illustrate the world that dreams and nightmares share in the mind of a child than Maurice Sendak? He'd been doing that very thing for decades in books when Stowell tapped him to design the sets and costumes. In addition to designing the artifice, Sendak collaborated with Stowell to incorporate more of E.T.A Hoffmann's original story into the production, making it darker in tone and thus lending it more gravity. All these things and more made it an instant smash when it debuted at the Opera House on December 21, 1983, so it's not surprising that Hollywood saw value in making a feature film of the production three years later. What is surprising (or not, depending on your view of Hollywood) is how badly they managed to screw it up.

Assembling the talent looked easy. The PNB dancers played the roles they were already playing on stage, and to their credit, onscreen they are marvelous. Stephen Burum, a stylish, incredibly talented cinematographer who worked with such exacting filmmakers as Coppola and DePalma shot it. And Carroll Ballard directed it, which may be where the problem lies. Every other Ballard film (Never Cry Wolf, The Black Stallion, Wind, Fly Away Home, and Duma) is a lavish, poetic, outdoor adventure. But here, he's cooped up on a Warner soundstage in L.A., trying to keep the spirit of an original stage production while infusing it with some sort of cinematic flair. And the only thing he or the producers thought to do was edit the hell out of it. I'm not talking about editing out sequences. I'm talking about watching a jaw-droppingly beautiful medium-shot of two dancers twirling around the stage interrupted by a jarring cut to a close-up of their faces, and then back to the medium-shot. This kind of thing happens throughout, and it's artistically painful to watch at times, since you see repeatedly how beautiful everything is, fleetingly, before another cut makes you blink and growl. That said, it's the only glimpse anyone outside of the PNB's home can get to the legendary production. It's also much more affordable, and perhaps most relevant to matters here, it's finally out on DVD after years of lingering on exorbitantly priced videocassettes. Perhaps the original negative is out there somewhere, and someone can re-edit the film so that the movement can flow beautifully, as it should, just as it's been doing onstage for 30 years.

-Mark Steiner

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