Barbie in the Nutcracker (Mattel Inc., 2001)
Care Bears' Nutcracker Suite (Nelvana, 1985)

One of the interesting things about babysitting for friends is that it allows me to become a party to many films that I would not normally watch. On a recent weekend in June, I was treated to a viewing of the seasonally inappropriate Barbie in the Nutcracker.

Barbie "stars" as Clara, a young girl who receives a nutcracker from her favorite (black sheep) aunt. That night she dreams she is on an adventure with the nutcracker. Said nutcracker is really a prince named Eric who has been cursed by the Mouse King (Tim Curry!) and can only be returned to his normal state upon the finding of the Sugar Plum Princess. Also in attendance are various fairies doing their thing to the music of Tchaikovsky.

I have been familiar with the story of The Nutcracker (originally written by E.T.A. Hoffman) since childhood, having seen it on stage as well as on various televised productions, including the famed George Balanchine production by the New York City Ballet (with a very out-of-place Macaulay Culkin) and a Bolshoi version featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov. I did not expect to give this film high marks upon being presented with the cover. Yet another merchandising ploy, I thought, and I attempted to steer the film viewing in another direction -- preferably towards something from Pixar.

It is, of course, a rather dumbed-down version with moments of slapstick humor and the addition of an adventure. Only one thing saves it from being a total waste. To make the ballet more realistic, real dancers from the abovementioned New York City Ballet (dances choreographed by Peter Martins, NYC's artistic director) were used as models for the computer-animated characters.

It is simply marvelous, though out of place after all the silliness. This impromptu ballet was pleasant enough to divert my attention from the chaos ensuing around me from the children, who had completely lost interest. By this time, however, I had already decided that I might as well get a review out the experience and had begun paying attention on my own. In case you haven't guessed who the Sugar Plum Princess turns out to be...well, you deserve to be left in suspense.

Things continued from here in a remarkably linear fashion as the next video shouted for was the Care Bears Nutcracker Suite. The Care Bears in The Nutcracker? What's next, Hamlet in the Big Blue House? It was so bad I was forced to look at the Barbie version in a whole new light.

Now, I'm all for children being introduced to classical entertainment on their level. After all, my first memories of classical music are from the Looney Tunes. Having said that, The Nutcracker and colored bears with weather symbols on their admittedly adorable bellies (sunshine, moon with star, stormclouds, rainbow, etc.) were simply never meant to go together.

But everything is a learning experience and I quickly understood what someone had told me about the Care Bears being popular with stoners; the amount of pure primary and secondary color -- combined with the surreality of the various bears' respective vengeances being enacted through their abdominal meteorology -- made me feel as if I were in an altered state without assistance.

And this was already on top of a scene in the Barbie version featuring Clara and the Nutcracker sliding down a chute. From their viewpoint, we see colors and stars flashing by right out of the "Star Gate" sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was all just a little too much psychedelia for one night and I've had a mild case of flashbacks ever since.

I've also had enough bowdlerized Nutcracker to last me for a while. If anything, I'm curious to seek out the original Hoffman story to see just how far these varied from the source material -- excluding, of course, the trademarked personalities. And to ground me back into classical thinking. But I think I'll wait until it's closer to the Christmas season.

And hopefully, this time, I won't need anyone to talk me down.

[Craig Clarke]