Why Hollywood Can’t Crack ‘The Nutcracker’ Story

“Cracking the code of the ‘Nutcracker’ on the big screen has proven to be an elusive goal,” one box office expert tells TheWrap

Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” opened to a paltry $20.4 million ($58.5 million worldwide) last weekend, a box office bomb given its production budget of $130 million. But it is far from the first time a version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet has failed financially — and critically.

So why can’t Hollywood get “The Nutcracker” right? TheWrap spoke with three box office experts to find out.

But lets start with the sordid box office history of “The Nutcracker” on the big screen:

In 2010, Freestyle Releasing put out “The Nutcracker in 3D,” starring Elle Fanning, Richard Philipps and Richard E. Grant. It grossed only $195,000 (from 45 locations) its opening weekend, and was widely panned by critics. (TheWrap’s own Alonso Duralde recently recalled the film “defiled” the work of Tchaikovsky, having taken “the classic story and ballet and added Holocaust metaphors, Tim Rice-penned hip-hop lyrics, and a bizarre turn by Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein.”)

Before that was “The Nutcracker,” released by Warner Bros. in 1993. It grossed just $2.2 million its opening weekend and received mixed reviews. Similarly, 1986’s “Nutcracker: The Motion Picture,” 1990’s “The Nutcracker Prince” and 1998’s “The IMAX Nutcracker” all underperformed at the box office.  

Experts who spoke with TheWrap pointed to one main reason why Hollywood hasn’t been able to crack “The Nutcracker” tale: The films stray too far away from the subject matter of the classic ballet.

“Hollywood has always tried to do too much with their adaptations of ‘The Nutcracker,’ without seemingly understanding why people go to the stage versions each and every year: the music and the dancing,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “If ‘The Nutcracker’ were made into a true musical it would no doubt delight audiences. Lin Manuel Miranda — Can you see the sugar plums dancing?”

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore, added, “Certainly cracking the code of the ‘Nutcracker’ on the big screen has proven to be an elusive goal with most of the adaptations having met with audience indifference. Such a classic and indelible story has presented challenges to filmmakers who have tried to tinker with the formula while balancing that against the built in expectations of moviegoers.”

And Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, agreed, saying that filmmakers have deviated from “The Nutcracker”‘s origin as a ballet too dramatically. “Part of the challenge has been the saturation of adaptations across film and television over the decades,” he told TheWrap, adding that the property may also not be well enough known among today’s young moviegoers. “Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s musical suite has become more recognizable than the story itself,” Robbins offered.

There are even more reasons why “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” specifically, had difficulty resonating with audiences last weekend. Its release date, its reshoots and the lack of name recognition also made it bomb at the box office, according to analysis by TheWrap’s Jeremy Fuster. Also, Disney possibly underestimated the power of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which over performed with a $51 million opening.

That said, “Four Realms” has been the highest grossing among all versions of the holiday season ballet adapted to the big screen. But that hasn’t earned it bragging rights. 

“Disney’s newest film is the most successful attempt in terms of tickets,” Robbins said. “It grossed more on its first day than the last six films made in their total runs, but as one of the more expensive Christmas movies made in recent years, there’s a negative perception overshadowing an otherwise decent box office performance.”

Even though we’ve seen Hollywood take multiple stabs at adapting the ballet to the big screen, Dergarabedian said we haven’t seen the last of “The Nutcracker.”

“There is no way that Hollywood will give up on this classic tale,” he concluded.