At the risk of being “those people” who start the Christmas season too soon after Halloween before Thanksgiving has even passed (Who am I kidding? We’re already “those people” – the Holiday Traditions station is currently the default channel on our Sirius XM), my daughter and I trekked to the local cineplex this weekend and took in a showing of Disney’s new feature, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Starring Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, with Mackenzie Foy as Clara, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms tells a new tale of Clara’s adventure to an enchanting parallel world.
Warning: plot spoilers ahead!
First things first: this film is a significant departure from Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday ballet. Aside from the setting and cast of characters, little in this film resembles the story that most know of Clara and her Nutcracker doll come to life.
Disney definitely took some liberties with this movie, which is probably why the credits say that it’s simply “inspired by” the classic tale.
Second things second: this film deserves an Oscar nomination. Yep, I’m calling for it now, fight me. Seriously: at a minimum, the Academy should pay attention to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for costume design, if not for set design as well. Nutcracker was simply beautiful to look at. The colors, costumes, and settings in this movie were vibrant and glorious – I don’t remember the last time I was wholly focused on the visual aspect of a film, but Jenny Beavan’s costumes and Lisa Chugg’s set decorations (thanks IMDb for the credit info!) had me doing just that.
The plot, however, left a bit to be desired, making it much easier to focus on the costumes, sets, and visual imagery.
Second Warning, a recap of the plot ahead.
The story opens in Victorian London, as young Clara (Mackenzie Foy) shows her brother Fritz (played by Tom Sweet) a mousetrap contraption that reveals her sense of inventiveness. Their father takes them to a Christmas Eve party hosted by none other than Clara’s Godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, played by Morgan Freeman. Freeman’s role isn’t extensive, and it’s not one of his more iconic characters, but who cares? Morgan Freeman can do whatever he darn well pleases, and I’ll probably think it’s great. Anyway, in the process, we learn that Clara’s mother has died, leaving the children gifts. Clara’s gift is a precious Faberge-style egg with a mysterious lock, but no key – and who else but Freeman’s Drosselmeyer to lead Clara to that key, where she discovers a magical otherworld!
Upon crossing over, the key Clara wants is stolen by a mischievous mouse, who leads Clara on a merry chase through Christmas-tree woods. There, Clara comes upon a Nutcracker soldier called Captain Phillip (played by Jaden Fowora Knight) who rescues her from a swirling-rodent-Mouse-King entity and leads her to the castle in the center of the kingdom. The castle was eerily reminiscent of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, but I digress. There, Clara meets the regents who preside over the lands of the kingdom: the regents of the Land of Snowflakes and the Land of Flowers (Richard E. Grant and Eugenio Derbez, respectively) and Sugar Plum, who rules the Land of Sweets (played by a scene-chewing Keira Knightley).
Clara tells the regents of her quest to find the key to unlock her mother’s egg, and Sugar Plum shows her a mysterious machine that could somehow save the kingdom from the heinous Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, who, like Morgan Freeman, can do no wrong), who rules the desolate fourth realm and has apparently been terrorizing the kingdom. Surprise, surprise – the key needed for the machine matches the key needed for Clara’s egg! So Sugar Plum sends Clara and Nutcracker Phillip on a mission to retrieve the key from the Mouse King in Mother Ginger’s fourth realm, and bring it back to open the egg, turn on the machine, and save the kingdom!
From here, the story is nothing fantastic. The reasons that the kingdom is in danger and the realms are fighting are wishy-washy at best, and of course the motives of some of the characters that Clara encounters are not what they seem. Nutcracker Phillip, despite being the titular character, is secondary – this is truly Clara’s story, and Phillip is a standard supporting character who aids Clara on her adventures. Clara’s deceased mother has an influence over the kingdom and Clara’s quest as well – she was once the Queen of the kingdom (making Clara a princess!), but how she became Queen was a note that was somewhat muddled: maybe she created the whole kingdom herself? There’s also a formulaic flashback with Clara and her mother that retreads the common trope of the heroine needing to look inside herself to “find everything that she needs” in order to fulfill her quest.
And you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned much about dance to this point: that’s because there’s very little of it, despite the association with the famous ballet. Ballerina Misty Copeland does feature in a nice scene where Clara is being introduced to the four realms, and Copeland returns for a brief ballet capper during the end credits, but otherwise, the ballet aspect of the story is an afterthought. Parts of Tchaikovsky’s score do punctuate the film throughout, but that’s where the similarities with the ballet ends.
Formulaic, weak plot, lack of emphasis on dance – here’s the thing: my daughter didn’t care about any of that.
She was simply enchanted by the whole film. She loved the beauty of the scenery, the pageantry, the adventure, and the eccentric characters. To that end, the film works: children, and especially my daughter, can get lost in the fantasy and the magical world of the Four Realms and can cheer for a heroine in Clara as she takes on her adventure.
Mackenzie Foy is clearly a talented young actress, and aside from the lavish costumes and wondrous settings, her character is the best part of the film. Disney has done well in recent years with creating heroic princess characters who display both thoughtfulness and courage in the face of adversity and who don’t need a romantic interest to be successful, and they hit that mark again with Clara.
Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn’t going to win any awards for its plot or characters, but it is beautiful to look at and does lend a sense of magic to these very early days of the holiday season. Bottom line, if your children enjoy fantasy and pageantry, this film provides a couple of fun hours – I had no problem having given Disney a few more bucks once this movie was over. My daughter recommends it.