The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Director: Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston Writers: Ashleigh Powell, Tom McCarthy Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman Studio: Walt Disney Studios Rated PG | 99 Minutes Release Date: November 2, 2018
The story of the Nutcracker may be a celebrated piece of a holiday tradition, but it is one that remains unknown to me. I only know it from the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” the ballerina dancing, nutcracker soldiers, and a mouse king. However, plot-wise and its storied history is something that I am very unfamiliar with. So rather than have a very conventional adaptation of the short story and dance production, Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston took a very different approach to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s take on the classic Christmas story.
They managed to modernize the classic Christmas story by embedding female empowerment and diversity into the story. While changing things to be more of a reflection of the current times isn’t anything new nowadays, we have to consider the storied history behind something like The Nutcracker, where there weren’t ballerina sequences or roles for ballerina dancers like Misty Copeland. Now we can see a film with a more diverse cast that will hopefully pave the way for more stories to be told like this. Check out my full review below.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms centers on Clara (Mackenzie Foy), one of three children to widower Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen). While the Stahlbaum household is normally full of cheer and joy during Christmas time, this year is especially somber with the passing of their Stahlbaum matriarch. However, she left behind three gifts, one each for her children. These gifts hold a special meaning for each child, but Clara’s gift is a locked egg. On top of that, there is no key. But the pain of their loss still raw, Mr. Stahlbaum takes his children to their inventive godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) annual Christmas party, and insist that they be on their best behavior and expects his two daughters to dance with him. But Clara believes that he is doing this for the sake of appearances. Still, she carries on and goes with them to the party.
Eager to see what is inside, Clara goes to Drosselmeyer who says that Clara is clever like her mother and that she will eventually find the key to unlock the egg. That’s when he presents his gift to her in the form of a golden thread that will lead her to it. Little does she know that this thread transports her to a magical world of snow, flowers, amusement, and sweets. She eventually finds the key only to have it taken away by a sneaky mouse who crosses over a bridge into a dark forest. There she meets Captain Phillip, the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who tries to stop her, but fails. So they regroup and find themselves meeting the rulers of each realm.
It is there that she finds out her mother was actually the queen of these four realms, which would make Clara a princess. The Land of Snow is ruled by the Snow Realm King (Richard E. Grant), the land of flowers is ruled by Flower Realm King (Eugenio Derbez), and the land of sweets is ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley). The three believe Clara came to their world to save them from the Land of Amusement’s ruler Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) and restore order and peace amongst the four realms.
While it may be an iconic piece of a holiday tradition, the film does take a few key pieces out of the original source material and modernize it. Of course, that isn’t so bad when you think about it considering how this may be the best way to introduce it to kids or those who are unfamiliar with the actual story of the Nutcracker. There’s action and adventure, but it also maintains the spirit of the dance by having three major dance sequences done by Misty Copeland. All of which look beautiful, elegant, and breathtaking. It’s easy to forget that a film is actually happening when you watch Copeland dance as she moves gracefully from one end of the screen to the next.
But it is the kind of performance that demands a tracking shot and fewer cuts. Why they chose to do this baffles me as it simply ruins the fluidity and beauty of the dance. Still, whenever it is on the dance, it’s worth every minute.
So the film adaptation may take a few creative liberties, but that is what will separate it from the rest of the cinematic takes on the story. While some played it by the book, here we have a big-budget production that adds people of color to its cast including Copeland. Having that sort of representation in dance and in music (Lang Lang, a Chinese concert pianist did the piano solo) in The Nutcracker shows that audiences can see themselves on screen.
There may be a lot to celebrate but the film has trouble working in unison. Maybe that’s because there are two different directors credited to the film. Hallström and Johnston’s work isn’t cohesive, and yet, their shoots work. It’s just two different people telling the same story but in a different way. It is pretty much what we saw in Justice League when Joss Whedon stepped in for Zack Snyder, and Solo: A Star Wars Story with Ron Howard taking over for Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Either way, audiences are transported to a world of enchantment.
The set designs are just as beautiful and creative. But a lot of times, these sets and the CG just don’t blend well together as they should. Still, it’s nice to see some tangible things. Although, it would have been nice to spend some time in the other realms.
And the costume designs are just as beautiful to look at. We see colorful characters in creative and extravagant costumes. Even the hair design can get a bit wild. So wild that Knightley actually eats her own hair. Not sure how that particular part fits in the grand scheme of things, but it’s there.
A large part of the A-list cast does the supporting work in the film, while it is up to Foy and Fowora-Knight to do the rest of the heavy lifting. While Foy does take the initial lead, her performance may come off as selfish and bratty. Of course, if you know the formula, you know how this will all end for her. We get to see that juxtaposed with intellect and cleverness. And at times it could work as there is character development. But it is all too predictable.
Morgan’s Drosselmeyer pretty much amounts to a cameo who helps guide Clara to the key. Grant and Derbez don’t offer much as well. They play two skittish characters that shout the typical “oh no” and gasp. But it is sad to see how underused Mirren’s Mother Ginger was in the film. That said, she makes use of the screen time she gets. Knightley’s bubbly fairy performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy is simply enchanting. As the spirited leader for the Land of Sweets, she provides much of the exposition to Clara. Often times silly and sometimes diva-ish, the Sugar Plum Fairy is just a strangely fun enigma to watch.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the kind of film that will satisfy audiences if they don’t get too bothered with the minutia. And it does stray away from the source material and turns it into a big budget studio film that is easily digestible for audiences who are not interested in ballet. Which is fine.
While it may not do anything extraordinary, it is still something that is definitely worth watching on the big screen.