It's Christmas Eve, 1850, in Germany, and young Clara (voiced by Megan Follows) feels uncertain about growing up. Disheartened and more than a little jealous of her beautiful older sister, Clara is cheered up by the gift of a fully-automated toy castle and unique Nutcracker doll from her eccentric Uncle Drosselmeier (Peter Boretski). Until the doll is broken by Clara's naughty little brother Fritz (Noam Zylberman). To cheer Clara up Uncle Drosselmeier recounts the story of how his nephew, Hans (Kiefer Sutherland) bravely freed the silly, selfish Princess Perlipat (Mona Waserman) from an evil spell only to be transformed by the vengeful Mouse Queen (Phyllis Diller) into the Nutcracker Prince. At first Clara dismisses this as just as fanciful story. Then later that night she happens upon an army of mice led by the newly-instated Mouse King (Mike MacDonald) attacking a shelf-load of her toys. Whereupon Clara's toys spring to life to defend the household led by the dashing Nutcracker Prince.
The second animated fantasy based on Tchaikovsky's beloved ballet, inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman's short story 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King', The Nutcracker Prince boasts a cast overqualified for a fairly slight affair. Alongside Kiefer Sutherland, whose masculine Jack Bauer voice is sounds rather jarring coming out of the supposedly fourteen year old Hans (strange to think he did this movie almost back to back with Young Guns II and the original Flatliners), Peter O'Toole relishes his special guest star status with an exuberant turn as comedy relief old codger Pantaloon. An old toy soldier whose attempts at heroism initially prove more hindrance than help. Produced by Kevin Gillis, creator of cult children's cartoon show The Raccoons, The Nutcracker Prince was released straight to video but found favour with Nineties kids who, having worn out their VHS copies of Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, were willing to settle for something sub-par but in a similar vein.
Of the many screen adaptations of The Nutcracker this, along with Carroll Ballard's Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986), ranks among the most faithful to the plot of the ballet. Which unfortunately results in awkward lulls in the story where the dancing ought to be. Like Don Bluth's saccharine adaptation of Thumbelina (1994) The Nutcracker Prince strains hard to mimic that Disney flavour. Yet, while overly sappy and insubstantial, the film is not without its own modest charms. Lavish backgrounds and period art design capture that special candy-coloured Christmas aesthetic beloved by fans. On a technical level the animation is polished, handsome at times but never dazzles the way a world as magical as that of The Nutcracker should. Easily the most entertaining portion of the movie is the story within a story that provides Hans (or is it the Prince?) with an origin. Told using a looser, breezier, staccato style of animation similar to that of the legendary UPA studio, it features more energetic performances and a zanier sense of humour.
Comedy stalwart Phyllis Diller brings some of that old-time screwball verve to her brassy, wisecracking Mouse Queen. She is great fun but exits far too early. Meanwhile the late Canadian comedian Mike MacDonald is genuinely sinister as the ranting psychotic Mouse King. Elsewhere Megan Follows, revered as the best screen incarnation of Anne of Green Gables (1985), gives a spirited turn despite being saddled with a Clara bereft of the fortitude and pluck scripts allotted Elle Fanning and Mackenzie Foy for their roles in The Nutcracker in 3D (2009) and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018). Scripted by Patricia Watson as a fairly generic and straightforward fantasy the film functions adequately as a coming of age fable wherein Clara ultimately rejects eternal youth in the Kingdom of Dolls so she can grow up and fulfill her dreams. Which, appropriately enough, include dancing in the ballet. The film does have the good sense to foreground Tchaikovsky's beautiful music as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It also features a pop interpretation of 'Waltz of the Flowers' similar to those slushy MOR soul ballads spotlighted in so many Disney animated features of the Nineties.