Film & Television

Have a Nutcracker Christmas — Seven Ways to Celebrate

More than 200 years ago — in 1816, to be precise — a Prussian author named E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote a novella called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. There’s a good chance you’ve never read it. But there’s an even better chance that you know the story very well. 

A young girl, originally Marie but more often now Clara, receives a nutcracker for Christmas from her mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer. When the holiday celebration is over and all have gone to bed, the nutcracker comes to life, fights and defeats the evil mouse king, at some point becomes a human prince, and whisks Marie/Clara away to a magical land of dolls and sweets.

Hoffmann’s original story is a bit more complex, with additional characters like Madam Mouserinks and Princess Pirlipat (the nutcracker’s superficial ex). But over time, simpler versions emerged. 

In 1844, a nearly identical adaptation, Histoire d’un casse-noisette, was published by Alexandre Dumas père, better known for his original classics The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. In 1855, Carl Reinecke wrote a series of musical compositions, which were played while the story was narrated. And, in 1892, the great Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky partnered with choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to create The Nutcracker that lives on today.

The Nutcracker is the most performed ballet in the world. Countless major and minor dance companies fund their entire seasons through Nutcracker ticket sales. And for millions of children, The Nutcracker is their first introduction to ballet, classical music, and good theater manners. Many companies suggest that you wait until a child is three or four years old. When my mother and I introduced my tiny daughter to the wonderfully family-friendly Boston Ballet production in the year 2000, it was a memorable milestone. (We’ve attended almost every year since; it takes a hospital stay or a global pandemic to keep us away.)

Whether you live in a major metropolis or a small rural community, there is probably a Nutcracker nearby (even if it’s just the starry-eyed students at the local dance school). But while nothing compares to the joy and thrill of live performance, there are myriad Nutcrackers available to stream or rent on TV. 

Here are some of the best, the worst, and the . . . well . . . most cracked of them.


The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

When the preview for this big-budget Disney adaptation first appeared, I thought it looked particularly sumptuous and just dark enough (some of the most exciting parts of any Nutcracker are sinister and mysterious). It also had a dream cast: Dame Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Misty Copeland, Morgan Freeman, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, and, as heroine Clara, Mackenzie Foy, whose preternatural beauty was leveraged in the final installment of the Twilight vampire series. Alas, the film was, as the British might say, “all fur coats and no knickers.” Lovely to look at, but not much underneath. The story is beyond silly, and Knightley’s cartoonish voice is enough to make you consider holiday hara-kiri. (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is available to stream on Disney+)


A Nutcracker Christmas (2016)

File this under The Nutcracker meets a Hallmark Christmas movie (that isn’t an insult; this one quite literally is a Hallmark Christmas movie). Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing and television’s Angel) stars as Lily, a ballerina who retired early because of a personal tragedy. When her niece wins a role in the Philadelphia Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker, Lily has to face her own demons, including whether she should return to dance . . . and to a lost love. It’s a safe bet there’s a happy ending just in time for Christmas. (A Nutcracker Christmas is on — you guessed it — Hallmark Movies.)


Barbie and the Nutcracker (2001)

As many times as I’ve seen The Nutcracker ballet onstage (and we’re easily looking at thirty to forty times), I probably had to watch this utterly cringe-worthy animated adaptation more. For a relatively brief but totally obsessive period, my daughter couldn’t get enough of it. Barbie (yes, that Barbie) is a young, impossibly long-limbed ballet dancer, helping her little sister and protégée Kelly by telling her the famous story of Clara and her enchanted, nutcracking prince. Although Tchaikovsky’s music is featured, there are lots of liberties taken with the source material (mainly, one must assume, to sell the dolls and toys that were released along with the video). The only real upsides (unless you’re a four-year-old girl) are some progressive gender-bending — the nutcracker comes from Aunt Drosselmeyer — and the magnificent Tim Curry voicing the evil Mouse King. (Barbie and the Nutcracker is available to rent on Amazon.)


George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993)

If you fondly remember the original holiday hit Home Alone (1990), you may be pleasantly surprised to see precocious Kevin McCallister dancing the roles of the Nutcracker and the Prince in this gorgeous New York City Ballet production. With an emphasis on the music and dancing (despite the stunt casting), this is a lovely film and as close to a live performance as you’re likely to get from your couch. Balanchine’s signature choreography is still showcased by the New York City Ballet today. Jessica Lynn Cohen dances young Clara; Darci Kistler dances the Sugarplum Fairy; and Damian Woetzel dances her cavalier. Oscar and multi-Tony winner Kevin Kline narrates. This would be a great introduction for a child or grandchild before taking them to the live ballet. (George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is available to rent on Amazon.)


Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986)

This original version combines the imagination and genius of late artist Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) with the estimable talents of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Based on Hoffmann’s original story, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture is darker than many adaptations, less a sugarcoated fantasy and more a curious nightmare. (And Drosselmeyer’s affection for Clara is just a little too creepy.) But, as Sendak explained to NPR in 2001, “Clara is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.” (Nutcracker: The Motion Picture is available to stream on Tubi and Amazon Prime.)


Nutcracker Fantasy (1979)

In this rather unusual, but very creative and interesting, Japanese interpretation, the familiar tale of Nutcracker feels a little like The Wizard of Oz with some Grimm’s fairytales thrown in for good measure. There’s a new villain, “the Ragman,” who turns naughty children into mice, and a host of royals, both good and bad. Clara eventually marries Fritz, who is also the nutcracker and also, I’m sorry to report, her cousin. Produced using stop-motion animation, characters are voiced by 70s television staples: Michele Lee, Melissa Gilbert, Eva Gabor, Roddy McDowall, Jo Anne Worley, and Christopher Lee. Although virtually forgotten over the years, Nutcracker Fantasy has collected a cult following. (Nutcracker Fantasy is available to rent on Amazon.)


The Nutcracker (1977)

I’ll leave you with the oldest — and to my mind, most classic — film version on my list: Mikhail Baryshnikov’s. Anyone young enough to know Baryshnikov only from the final season of Sex and the City, can’t imagine what a superstar he was at the height of his ballet career. Here, he truly soars above everyone else as he partners with prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland (Baryshnikov’s real-life partner at the time). Kirkland’s Clara is ethereal and at times heart-breaking, very much a girl on the verge of womanhood, and the entire production has both the bittersweet quality of childhood lost and the sweet potential of the future. As the narrator explains, “Tonight is a special Christmas night for Clara. She is about to receive the gift of a dream.” The glorious production, which was nominated for two Emmy Awards, is truly a gift to savor. (The Nutcracker is available to rent on Amazon.)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a cracked nut!


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