In a promising opening to this new adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s much-loved story, Clara (the voice of Megan Follows) and her younger brother pay a brief visit to their Uncle Drosselmeier on the way home to their family’s Christmas party. The richly colored animation and careful detail in The Nutcracker Prince satisfyingly evoke a 19th-century European village. While the overture to Tchaikovsky’s ”Nutcracker Suite” dips and swells in the background, the kids play tag in the fields.
But after the party, Uncle Drosselmeier tells Clara a fairy tale about an enchanted Nutcracker Prince — and the animation style changes from Disney-style traditional to an ugly, garish cartoon. The voices during this long and labored sequence are so irritating that you want to cover your ears and go home: Phyllis Diller, screeching as the Mousequeen, is the least offensive. And the music is not Tchaikovsky, but an original and cacophonous score by Victor Davies.
The characters are so relentlessly unpleasant that I cringed at the idea of a young child watching. ”You doubted me, you stupid, stupid boy!” screams the Mousequeen at her son, who, moments later, spits on her dead body and declares himself Mouseking.
Uncle Drosselmeier’s fantasy story ends with the horrid Mouseking determined to kill the Nutcracker Prince.
It’s a relief to get back to Tchaikovsky and the original story, in which Clara awakens in the middle of the night to find her Nutcracker Prince doll engaged in a battle with the pursuing Mouseking and his army. There are a few other scenes that could be frightening to very young children — especially the one in which the supposedly dead Mouseking suddenly rises up fiery-eyed in true horror-movie fashion. But overall, good humor persists throughout the action. (”Come out and meet your fate, Prince of Dolls,” sneers the macho Mouseking, while his goofy-looking army chants ”Fight, fight, fight,” like kids in a school cafeteria.)
Kiefer Sutherland as the voice of the Nutcracker Prince is uncharacteristically shy and demure — striking just the right tone for a prince — and Peter O’Toole as the voice of the old doll-soldier Pantaloon is endearingly scrambled.
When Clara and the Nutcracker Prince win the battle and move along to the movie’s sweet resolution, it almost makes the unpleasant segment worth sitting through. Almost. C+