The Hip Hop Nutcracker (2022) and In Motion: Hip Hop Nutcracker at NJPAC: An ALL ARTS Presentation (2019)

What is The Hip Hop Nutcracker? "The Hip Hop Nutcracker" is a new special you can stream on Disney+, while "Hip Hop Nutcracker at NJPAC: An ALL ARTS Presentation" is a New York Emmy-winning episode of In Motion on PBS. 

Both of these presentations are based on the original stage show (which you can even see live on tour.) Is one of them better than the other? Well, both have their good points, but we think one is clearly more enjoyable to watch.

Both are based on a reimagining of The Nutcracker. Short version: In this story, Maria-Clara is a teenager (possibly young adult) who's sad that her parents are fighting. She meets a cute boy who sells nuts from a cart, they fight some magic mice together, and he saves her with the help of some magic shoes from Drosselmeyer. Drosselmeyer sends Nutcracker boy and Maria-Clara back in time to witness the beginning of her parents' romance, then they return to the present and use dance to remind them how much they love each other. Big dance number; curtain call. 

It's still The Nutcracker, so the dancers just dance, they don't speak. All the dance is different hip hop styles and techniques performed by extremely talented dancers. 

That's what the two versions have in common. 

The Disney+ version is 45 minutes and wedges in a bunch of heavy-handed exposition rap-sung by Rev Run. The PBS version, being a film of the stage performance, runs 83 minutes, and there is no singing until a special appearance by Kurtis Blow during the encore curtain call. (He also appears very briefly at the end of the Disney version.)  

Somewhat bizarrely, the music is incredibly different. The PBS (original) version is the Nutcracker - in full traditional style with occasional DJ artistry overlaid. But many of the songs are performed straight. The way the modern hip hop dance meshes with the orchestral music is part of what makes it fascinating. The Disney version replaced all that music with overtly hip hop remixes of Nutcracker tunes. Most of the songs are still recognizable, but I got a little lost during the time travel (Land of Sweets) section. Neither decision is wrong here, just different.

Disney hired a huge number of exceptional dancers and let them each do the thing they are best at. The stage version, of course, had a smaller cast where most dancers played multiple roles and got to shine many times. There are pros and cons to both approaches here.

The Disney+ version has a lot of pizzazz. The costumes are very snazzy; the sets are fancy. Unfortunately, it also looks incredibly overproduced. The dancing is overlaid with CG sparkles to make sure we know that magic or love is happening, and there are even captions constantly explaining things to make sure there's no possibility anyone would have to think about what's going on for even a millisecond. 

Worst of all to our minds, many of the numbers in the Disney version are edited into incomprehensibility. The edits are constant and incredibly fast, such that we hardly ever get to actually see the dancers' incredible talents! It was so frustrating to watch something that was so clearly diminished in the editing process.

Meanwhile, the PBS version is amazing. Yes, it's not as shiny looking, but the dancing is still phenomenal, and you can see everything they're doing and be properly impressed by it! Plus the story has room to breathe. The dancers have time to act out their emotions, no captions needed. It's charming and even hilarious at times because the characters are more human. 

The story even makes more sense in the PBS version. The Disney version tells us that it's New Year's Eve and it's somehow important for Maria-Clara's parents to kiss by midnight, then promptly undermines that with a shot of the time being past midnight (this is before the time travel bit). She's clearly not a child, it's odd that the conflict has so much weight. In the PBS version, it just seems like it's a shame that her parents are fighting, no weird deadline necessary. She doesn't stress too much about it, instead parties with her friends, gets in trouble, falls in love, happens to take this time travel journey... Then she sees her parents' young love and reminds them of what they love about each other by showing them her new relationship. In the Disney version, they bring the exact dance move back to the present for some reason, but I wasn't sure whether that happened in the PBS version. It didn't seem important. 

A few other standout points:

The gender-flipped Drosselmeyer is awesome in both versions. Just amazing design, costume, dance, everything. Well done.

Maria-Clara and her friends have a lot more time to play and party in the PBS version, including a very amusing sequence in which they navigate among a maze of red Solo cups.

The dancers playing "living toys" do a great job in both versions. 

The Mouse King on Disney+ is a very cool casting choice: professional one-legged breakdancer Jean Sok. He's amazing to watch. It does make the plot bit where the Nutcracker wins against the mice with magic shoes a bit awkward, though. For PBS, the Mouse Queen is played by genderfluid breakdancer Randi “Rascal” Freitas, who is also awesome. 

I like the neon sign for the growing Christmas tree. Nice allusion to the ballet. 

Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker's first big dance number is great in both versions, although their romance is cuter on PBS because there are more false starts and playfulness.

The snowflakes dance for Disney is done by the Jabbawockeez crew, but first we see a dude that the caption calls the "Spirit of Snow." He's presented in a way that communicates: you're supposed to know who this is. I didn't, so I quickly Googled, and this character and sequence were added in the Disney version because they wanted to give Mikhail Baryshnikov a bit part, which, that's fair. 

The end of the PBS Dance of the Snowflakes features a very cool effect where the dancers use their bodies to create rolling snowy hills for the main characters to walk through. It's gorgeous.

So the "Land of Sweets" from the original is replaced by the time travel section. Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker go back in time to a club. On PBS, it's clear that this is operating by Christmas Carol rules: no one can see or hear them. I wasn't sure about that on Disney. The different "sweets" are performances in different styles, and I'm sure that someone who knows more about hip hop can school me on clever touches about the timeline and which styles are chosen. I just know that on PBS it's clearer that the dancers are trying to outdo each other with the different numbers, and they are all fabulous.

I really liked the Candy Canes on Disney+. This number was a really fun pair dance for a male ballet professional and a female breakdancer. 

Meanwhile, the Russian Dance on the PBS version has a good amount of kicking and jumping similar to the ballet version, but then climaxes in the two dancers doing quick kicks upside down while doing hand stands. It was great. 

I also loved the adorable PBS curtain call where each actor posed for a "selfie" and the spotlight "flashed." 

In the end, both versions are enjoyable, but the Disney version just doesn't do enough justice to the dancers' talent in our opinion. We do recommend the PBS version for an amazing Nutcracker experience.