Tat'iana Il'ina, The Nutcracker [Shchelkunchik] (2004)
reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek©2005
In fall 2004 the Russian full-length animated film The Nutcracker premiered in Russia and abroad. The director, Tatiana Il'ina, together with American writer Michael Maurer, freely adapted for the screen E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”[i] (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig,” 1816). Their adaptation differs from the scenario for the famous Chaikovskii ballet of the same title, familiar to audiences today. Created in 1891 by the director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, Ivan Aleksandrovich Vsevoilovskii, and by choreographer Marius Petipa, the scenario for the ballet, rather than using Hoffmann’s story, was based on a French version of the tale The Nutcracker of Nuremberg, written by Alexandre Dumas, père.
The various adaptations of Hoffmann’s story for the theatre and screen often simplify the complex plot of the original tale. The narrative line of the nut Krakatuk and its power to break the spell cast on the princess Pirlipat by Madame Mouserinks is omitted in most adaptations, including the one for the Russian film in question.[ii] What we usually see on stage or on screen is the story of a Nutcracker toy given to a girl, usually called Marie or Clara, by the wizard Drosselmeier. The Nutcracker is in reality a prince who will be able to resume his human appearance only after killing the Mouse King and conquering the heart of the girl.
Il'ina sets the story in St. Petersburg. The wizard Drosselmeier arrives in the city on New Year’s Eve and finds in Marie (called by the diminutive Masha in the film) the girl who can save the Nutcracker from the Mouse King and return him to his original appearance. The film maintains the story of the nut Krakatuk. But while in Hoffmann’s tale the Nut will break the spell put on Pirlipat, in the film, it is the Nut that has the power to break the spell cast on the Nutcracker.
The film introduces a completely new approach to the story. The Prince is the only one responsible for his bodily transformation; he is not condemned to a wooden body under a spell recited by some evil spirit. The evil spirit is within him. The Nutcracker was once a spoiled prince who did not care about anything or anyone, who had—in the wizard's words—a “wooden heart.” On New Year’s Eve, the wizard-uncle Drosselmeier gives the Prince the nut Krakatuk to transform him into a better person with a loving heart. When the Prince capriciously throws it away, the Nut—echoing the prince’s words about a world full of toys—transforms the prince into a Nutcracker and his servants into toys. The nut Krakatuk re-grows every New Year’s Day in Fairyland; the Nutcracker needs to eat the nut before midnight and win a girl’s heart in order to break the spell.
The moralizing twist in the film fulfills a pedagogical task: the wizard’s words sound like a warning to all misbehaving children. Drosselmeier’s moralizing sentences, however, lose their strength in the mouth of the wizard; they sound cold and lifeless (for example, in the wizard’s explanation to the Nutcracker that the “Nut is only a trial and that friends’ love and devotion is the real miracle.” The wizard’s image on the screen appears static and stiff. This rigidity of movement conveys a presumably desired aura of mystery and wisdom, but most of the time it is perceived as a fault in the animation and in the development of the wizard’s movements. As a result, the character does not convince spectators.
The character of Masha is also weak and not fully developed. She lives in her own fantastic world, and often this world, being more interesting than she is, belittles her. It is not clear how and why the Nutcracker attracts her or what she sees in him—certainly the Nutcracker lacks expressiveness as well. His limbs move and become alive, but his feelings, his love, and his fears do not enliven his face or his gestures. In the course of the film, he evolves from a self-centered character into a courageous friend who sacrifices his salvation for Masha’s life. But his development is abrupt and sudden.
Occasionally the film drags and loses rhythm. This shortcoming probably derives from the artists’ inexperience with full-length animation. Il'ina proved her talent directing several three-minute animated shorts for the film miscellany The Jolly Carousel (Veselaia Karusel') in the 1990s; however, she has never before directed a full-length film. Similarly, Aleksei Shelmanov and Natal'ia Mal'gina, who directed episodes in The Nutcracker, also have no previous experience in full-length animation. While Shelmanov has worked in animation for twenty years (from 1985 until 2000 at Soiuzmul'tfil'm Studio; in 2000 he started work at Argus International on the film Ivan and Mitrofan in the Future [Ivan i Mitrofan v budushchem] together with the artist Petr Kotov—who also participates in The Nutcracker), he has never directed films longer than ten minutes. In addition to co-authoring dialogs for the film with G. Kazankina, Shelmanov in The Nutcracker is mainly responsible for the battle scenes, which were entrusted to him when he joined the group in April 2002. Mal'gina, who was assigned to work mostly on the first part of The Nutcracker, is a young new director; she debuted in 2000 with the short film Ivan and Mitrofan at the Stadium (Ivan i Mitrofan na stadione), also produced by Argus International.
As a rule, Russian animation directors are neither trained for full-length films at school, nor do they opt to work in the longer format in the studios; they prefer to engage in short made-for-television films—to countermeasure the American and Japanese animation that nowadays floods Russian TV—or they experiment with short films to show at animation festivals. If artists want to see their films on the big screen, however, they have only one option: to produce feature films. Short films are not shown in regular Russian movie theaters any longer and there are no more theaters dedicated exclusively to animation. Gone are the days when the Moscow theater Rossiia had a special “animatsionnyi zal” or special theaters like Barrikady showed animated films at any time of day.
A major problem with undertaking full-length animated films is the search for financial support, a problem that animation artists have had to face since the beginning of the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the production of animation films—once centralized in the hands of a few studios and fully financed by the State—was scattered among the numerous studios that suddenly appeared in the new free market. Most of those studios have not survived: some had to close after a short period of time, some survived but were enable to pay their artists adequately.
Argus International, the studio that produced The Nutcracker, is one of the professional studios that opened in Moscow during the beginning of the 1990s. In order to provide the studio with funds, producer Vladimir Repin searched for the collaboration of foreign companies (in 1996 a new joint Russian and German venture named Argus Film Studios & Co. International was established) and expanded production from animated films to advertising reels, to purchasing programs for TV channels, and to distributing some foreign films to Russian movie theaters.
Repin came up with the idea for a feature film based on the classic story of The Nutcracker already during the fall of 1998. In 1999 Il'ina prepared a two-minute pilot reel of the film The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Shchelkunchik i myshnyi korol'), and in January 2000 she screened it at the New York Film Festival, winning the World Gold Medal for best animation. The creative group for the project was assembled after this success and work started on the full-length film.
To raise production funds for The Nutcracker (in the end it cost 10 million dollars), Repin found a co-producer in 2001, the German company MC One GmbH (famous for co-production of the film Nirgendwo in Afrika [dir. Caroline Link, 2001], which won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2003). The premiere of The Nutcracker, initially scheduled for August-September 2003, was postponed on account of disagreements that arose between Argus and its German partner about the distribution rights to the film. At the beginning of 2004, after lengthy court hearings, the two parties worked out an amicable agreement: Argus kept the exclusive rights to the release and distribution of the Russian version of the film on the territory of the former USSR; and MC One GmbH together with Argus were to share the profits for worldwide distribution. In fall 2004 the film was released in Russia, USA, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (German speaking region). While the Russian version of the film was completely produced in Russia, the international version includes—in addition to the original materials—some scenes prepared by other studios in Europe. The international version was released with German and English titles (Nussknacker und Mausekönig; The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) and with famous German and American actors providing the voices for the characters (including, in the US version, Lesley Nielsen as the Mouse King).
Soon after the film appeared on VHS and DVD in Russia and the former Soviet republics, Soiuz-Video received exclusive distribution rights to The Nutcracker on VHS, DVD, MPEG-4, and VIDEO CD, while Gemini Film International obtained the rights for the distribution of the film. A Ukrainian company, Frogwares, created a video game (released by Novyi Video) using the drawings of the characters as they appear in the film. In the meantime, Argus International searched for sponsors for all kinds of merchandising tie-in products. In this respect, The Nutcracker provides a clear example of a new direction taken by the Russian animation industry: following the example of the American film industry, Russian producers of animation films are not only subdividing distribution rights among various companies at different levels, but are also undertaking the sale of rights for the production of all kinds of merchandizing linked to the film.
Working with foreign producers also means being subject to strict deadlines—on occasion this means sacrificing the quality of the final product—and being open to suggestions that producers might have during the creative process. The main change that the working team had to face during the creation of The Nutcracker was a complete reworking of the film’s ending. According to an interview with Il'ina, the film had a more subtle and lyrical ending, one that was more “Russian.”[iii] When American producers manifested an interest in the film and its American distribution, they suggested, in classic Hollywood style, adding a “happy end” in order to meet the tastes of the American public and to fit a worldwide distribution plan. As a consequence, in March 2003 more money was invested in the project and the entire ending was redone. The Nutcracker tries to appeal to mass audiences: it’s a film for the entire family, from small children to adults. The most frightening scenes have been toned down to avoid scaring youngsters; some jokes have been added to please grown-ups.
The film has achieved some recognition and success with the public, at least in the former USSR. On 29 January 2005, it received the Golden Eagle from the National Academy of Cinematographic Sciences and Arts, and in March 2005 it received an audience award at the XIth Russian Festival “Literature and Cinema” in Gatchina, a competition that included film-adaptations, animated films based on literary works, and documentaries dedicated to writers.
But by trying to please an international public, The Nutcracker traded its “Russian character” for a Disney style. It repeated the experience of another Russian film, Little Longnose (Karlik nos; dir. Il'ia Maksimov), that went into international distribution in 2003. The first Russian full-length theatrically released animated feature since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Little Longnose premiered in March 2003 in Russia and a year later in Germany under the title Zwerg Nase. In 2004 it was screened at various film festivals in Norway, the Czech Republic, USA, and Canada. Although entertaining, this film introduced nothing new in its themes, techniques, or style.
Financial aid is difficult to obtain for all types of animated films, but even more so for films that are not intended for mass audiences; producers and distributors are often unwilling to risk supporting original projects. Auteur films are usually not very profitable because their viewing public is limited to film festivals. Nonetheless, such films are fundamental to the development of animation as an autonomous form of art. A film like Boris Stepantsev’s The Nutcracker (1973), provides an example of an animated film that was innovative and original, and was also successful among all levels of the public—children, adults, and festival audiences. While the film was only thirty minutes long and was made at a different historical moment, it is worth comparing it to the new version: there is no dialog in Stepantsev’s film―only images and music. Artistically drawn backgrounds, superimposed images, as well as movements and metamorphoses to the rhythm of Chaikovskii’s music created a fantastic dimension, a magical world, and a lyric atmosphere. Fragments of Chaikovskii’s music perfectly fit the narrative line and the images on screen, and no words were needed.
Following Stepantsev’s example, Il'ina attempted to use Chaikovskii’s music for the soundtrack of The Nutcracker at the beginning of production. The composer Iu. Kasparov prepared an arrangement of the traditional music; yet Chaikovskii’s music did not harmonize well with the images. A second composer, A. Vartanov, opted for an original soundtrack in which only a few notes from Chaikovskii’s melodies could be recognized—for example, at the beginning of the film, and more extensively in the toyshop episode and during the dances. His music is melodious and pleasant, but it works as background and does not play an important function in the film.
Il'ina’s Nutcracker lacks the lyric spirit that permeates Stepantsev’s adaptation, following instead the example of more contemporary and entertaining animated films. The mice in this new version have lost all their ugliness and dreadfulness; they are appealing, they deliver laughable jokes, and their goofiness makes them even agreeable. Three ridiculous mice follow the wizard around the world to try to find a way to get possession of the nut Krakatuk, but when the Mouse King has it in his possession, he cannot even think of a wish and he loses his chance. The only frightening appearance in the film is the grandmother Myshil'da’s black shadow, which comes to the mice’s aid and creates various obstacles for little Masha.
The ending is a typical Hollywood “happy end”; it recalls Beauty and the Beast (dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991), but without the careful elaboration of the animated scenes that characterizes Disney’s movie. It visibly lacks smoothness. The last words of the film are an expedient to prepare the audience for a sequel: the grandmother promises that the nut Krakatuk will be hers one day. The viewer already half expects to see on-screen the words “To be continued…”
The Nutcracker displays many shortcomings and is plainly imitative of foreign styles, yet it contains a few successful episodes. An interesting moment in the film occurs when the wizard invites Masha and her brother to enter his toyshop and shows them the story of the Nutcracker staged on a little theater. This creates a representation-within-a-representation: the tale materializes on the stage in front of the two children. The mice watch the staged story through the shop window; they are at the same time in the story represented in the theater as characters and outside the story as spectators. Parallels are created between the characters in the little theater and the same characters outside the theater—such as the toys and the mice, the new characters in relation to the Nutcracker’s story, Masha and Nikolai, and also the viewers watching the film on-screen.
The spectator follows Masha and Nikolai, watching the story staged on the small theatre, but also has access to the same story without its mediation. The story in the theater appears on the full screen, only briefly interrupted by a quick cut to the children’s faces. The film leads us to perceive Masha as already a participant in the personal story of the Nutcracker; it also draws a parallel between the Prince and Nikolai; they are similar in appearance and partly in their behavior. This play between what is shown, what is seen, what is perceived, and who perceives it facilitates the process of identification between the audience in the movie theater and the characters on-screen, it establishes a self-reflexive moment in which audience members question their position as spectators.
In another scene, the wizard, instead of reducing Masha’s size with the touch of a magic wand, asks Masha to walk back until her image reflected in the mirror becomes the same size as the image of the Nutcracker. Only in that moment can the two enter Fairyland together. The actual size of a human being seems to be irrelevant, a mere matter of appearances; the mirror resembles a screen and once again the film invites self-identification with what appears on the screen and an adaptation of the self in order to fit the role. Or perhaps this is an invitation for grown-ups to join the children in the land of imagination and a reminder that it is possible to do so only if adults imagine themselves to be small.
The city of St. Petersburg is faithfully and masterfully drawn in the background of the film. Both art directors—Petr Kotov and Igor' Oleinikov—are talented and well-known artists in the world of Russian animation. Kotov participated in making such auteur animation films as Natal'ia Orlova’s With Whom Can I Share my Sorrow? (Komu povem pechal' moiu?,1988; based on Chekhov's stories Van'ka and Taska); Orlova’s Hamlet (1992); and Andrei Khrzhanovskii's films The Lion with a Grey Beard (Lev s sedoi borodoi, 1995) and The School of Beautiful Arts. The Return (Shkola iziashchnikh iskusstv. Vozvrashchenie, 1990). Oleinikov has been working in animation since 1979. He has drawn settings and characters for numerous short animated films and famous full-length animated films, such as Roman Kachanov’s Secret of the Third Planet (Taina tretei planety, 1981) and Lev Mil'chin and Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s Tale of Tsar Sultan (Skazka o tsare Saltane, 1984).
St. Petersburg functions both as the site of action and as a character. At the beginning of the film the city, its statues, and its monuments come to life as Masha looks at them. Her imagination materializes in the continuous transformations and animation of otherwise lifeless objects. Later in the film, Myshil'da's black shadow transforms the city around Masha—palaces become deformed, outlined by skewed lines and dark colors; they move and surround Masha, trying to block her way; threatening statues come to life to attempt to stop her from continuing her path. In this scene, the black shadow can be read as a symbol of a child’s fears, projected onto distorted drawings in the same way that French impressionist movies of the 1920s rendered a character’s mental state through distorted shots.
It is a positive sign that Russian animation is finally trying to enter the world market with its films. But it would be more desirable to have films that will bring Russian animation to the attention of the international market not as a copy of Disney, but as innovative and original works of animation. Russian animation directors and artists better express their creativity and originality in short animated films. Yet with proper financial aid and support they could find a way to express their creativity also in a longer format. Innovative films might not be as profitable as the Nutcracker, but they will be a force for change in the way animated films are made and in the way they are perceived.
Hoffmann and Pictures by Maurice Sendak, Nutcracker,
trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1984).
Laura Pontieri Hlavacek, Yale University
The Nutcracker, Russia and Germany, 2004
Color animation, 82 minutes
Il'ina (with Aleksei Shelmanov, Natal'ia Mal'gina)
Screenplay: Tat'iana Il'ina and Michael Moorer
Artists: Petr Kotov and Igor' Oleinikov
Music: Petr Chaikovskii
Voices: Evgenii Mironov, Georgii Taratorkin, Marina Aleksandrova, Efim Shifrin, Iurii Gal'tsev, Mariia Aronova
Repin and Hans-Peter Baumhauer
International, MC One GmbH
Tat'iana Il'ina, The Nutcracker [Shchelkunchik] (2004)
reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek©2005