The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has all the elements of an earnest holiday movie with family-friendly fun, but is less than the sum of its parts.
The Nutcracker is a staple of the holiday season, and Disney looks to offer their own take on the classic story with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Based on the original short story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" by E.T.A. Hoffman as well as The Nutcracker Ballet, Disney brings the classic into the modern era with a retelling of the fairy tale that puts a new spin on it. It's clear the Mouse House wants The Nutcracker and the Four Realms to be one of their big holiday hitters - but the release just two days after Halloween and long before the holiday season actually kicks off may ensure it gets buried rather than has legs throughout the next two months. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has all the elements of an earnest holiday movie with family-friendly fun, but is less than the sum of its parts.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms follows Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), the middle child of an aristocratic family in Victorian era London. However, Clara feels out of place in her family, less concerned with fashion than her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) but not as filled with childish innocence as her younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet). And Clara butts heads with her father, Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen), over how both of them are dealing with the death of Clara's mother, Marie (Anna Madeley). While at a Christmas Eve party at the home of Clara's godfather, the inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), she follows a path laid out by both her mother and Drosselmeyer that leads her to discover the Four Realms.
Once in the Four Realms, Clara meets a young Nutcracker soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that her mother is queen of the land - making Clara the princess. Phillip takes Clara to the palace at the center of the realms, where she meets the regents of three of the realms: Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the regent of the Realm of Flowers; Shiver (Richard E. Grant), the regent of the Realm of Snowflakes; and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), the regent of the Realm of Sweets. Clara also learns that the fourth regent, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements, has been banished for started a war among the realms. However, as Clara attempts to save the world her mother loved so much, she learns that not everything is as it appears, and she'll need to dig deep to find the strength of her character in order to save the Four Realms.
Though The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is based on Hoffman's story and the ballet, the movie was adapted for film by newcomer Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy (Christopher Robin). In terms of directors, Lasse Hallström directed principal photography of the movie, while Joe Johnston stepped in for the month-long reshoots due to Hallström's unavailability. As a result, the pair share directing credit. And, although cinephiles may be wary of a movie in which two directors helmed different portions of the film's production, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn't demonstrate any signs of warring visions. It all comes together cohesively for a story that honors the classic tale, but puts an entirely new spin on it in terms of how it portrays Clara and certain inhabitants of the Four Realms.
For instance, Marie, the main character of Hoffman's story is not only reimagined as the mother of Clara, she's also portrayed as an inventor as talented, if not more so, than Drosselmeyer. Similarly, Clara follows in her mother's footsteps with a talent for tinkering with her mother's and Drosselmeyer's inventions. The spin gives Clara a great deal of agency in the story of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, though it is quite a bit similar to how Disney modernized Beauty and the Beast when adapting it to live-action. As a result, Clara's abilities as an inventor come off somewhat more as simply an easy way for the Mouse House to reimagine a female character in a way that appears more modern. Certainly, Clara's talents are essential to her adventure, and Hollywood needs more female characters with STEM-related interests, but this particular spin on the original story is indicative of the film overall. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms makes choices that seem to work on paper but fail to come together particularly well.
That's most apparent in Knightley's performance as Sugar Plum, whose sickly sweet, breathy voice stands out as a particular acting (or directing) choice that may have seemed compelling but stands in stark contrast to the rest of the cast and characters. Knightley is over-the-top as Sugar Plum and while there is some fun to be had with the character's portrayal in the movie, it only helps to highlight the fact that the majority of the rest of the inhabitants of the realms are played much more grounded. Aside from their elaborate costumes - which are absolutely wonderfully designed by costumer Jenny Beavan - the other regents and palace guards aren't nearly as over-the-top as Sugar Plum. It provides some truly cringeworthy moments of camp, especially when contrasted with the truly earnest performances of Foy as Clara and Fowora-Knight as Phillip. The pair of young leads have a sweet friendship that works to ground The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Ultimately, in addition to the costumes by Beavan and production designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas, the most memorable aspect of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is its earnestness in giving Clara an empowering journey to discovering herself and rediscovering the meaning of family following the death of her mother. There are undoubtedly moments sweet enough to give viewers a toothache (or inspire laughs at certain lines that are perhaps too corny for anyone not fully in the sentimental Christmas mindset), but that's true of most holiday movies. Sentimentality and earnestness aren't necessarily a bad thing to have in a film, but The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn't pull off weaving in those elements in a way that feels earned, falling just short of the mark - or, as the case may be, overshooting it by far too much.
Altogether, though, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is still a solid family-friendly adventure; one in which a young girl bonds with her mother over their love of inventing and finds the confidence that what makes her different is what makes her strong. It's a powerful message, and comes alongside one about the importance of family. As a result, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is worth checking out for those interested in getting into the holiday spirit. (However, those thinking Disney's Nutcracker retelling will include a great deal of ballet and dancing should keep their expectations low, though Misty Copeland is wonderful as the ballerina.) While The Nutcracker and the Four Realms will undoubtedly find some fans, it is by no means destined to become a holiday classic.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 99 minutes long and rated PG for some mild peril.
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- The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) release date: Nov 02, 2018