The Nutcracker is a famous ballet known the world over for its delicacy and grace in performance and the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music. In fact, it’s safe to say that more people are aware of the story in connection to ballet than to its roots as an E.T.A. Hoffman story from 1816 titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. In an attempt to bridge the two, co-directors Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) take the original story, add in some familiar musical cues, incorporate a few signature ballet moments, and attach a personal element into the narrative as a means of grounding the wondrous story. What should be a glorious mix of the arts results in something far less blended, the parts sticking out as interesting pieces which don’t mesh when combined. What should’ve been a slam-dunk of a holiday film when it released in November, falls under the weight of attempting too much, in too dour of a tone.
Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) usually looks forward to Christmas. It’s not the pageantry or the gifts, but the time with her family. However, this being the first Christmas Eve since her mother passed away, neither she nor her siblings or father are in a particularly festive mood. However, Christmas Eve also brings a regular party from her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), so the Stahlbaums prepare themselves to go for the sake of tradition. Clara’s father gives the children a gift from their mother: a dress for Louise (Ellie Bamber), a tin soldier for Fritz (Tom Sweet), and a locked egg for Clara. Since the egg bears the Drosselmeyer insignia, Clara goes to him for help, but what she is given is an adventure into The Four Realms, a magical place in conflict as the realms of Leaves, Snowflakes, and Sweets are embroiled in batter with the Realm of Amusements, an ally of the Mouse King. Clara’s arrival in the Four Realms is fortuitous, for sure, but is everything as simple as it appears?
The original story is a fairly straightforward tale of youthful adventure along the lines of Alice in Wonderland and the trailers for Four Realms suggested something more in that vein. When viewed in singular pieces, Ashleigh Powell’s script does contain all you need for an adventurous tale of awe and growth. However, what audiences receives is a film trying to do too much in too short of a time span while trying to maintain a happy tone with a grim narrative. First the film must establish Clara’s world, then establish Drosselmeyer’s, and then establish the Realms, all while piling exposition on top of exposition to explain what’s happening and who’s who. By the time Clara is taking action instead of simply reacting, the film is nearly over. In contrast to the original Nutcracker story, Four Realms involves far more moving pieces than make sense in order to keep the runtime low. Making Four Realms a spiritual sequel to the original story is one of the impressive things Powell devised. In the original tale, it’s Marie Stahlbaum – Clara’s mother – who goes on the adventure with the Nutcracker. In Four Realms, it’s Clara who takes the journey. When Marie did it, it was to save the Nutcracker from evil. When Clara does it, it’s because she believes her mother left her a message within the egg, a totem of her mother’s love, which places her in the crosshairs of an unnecessary war. Unlike Marie, all that consumes Clara is grief and all that drives her is pain. It’s a constant undertone throughout the whole of Four Realms, which provides a constant drag on the otherwise brightly lit, quite luminous film. This isn’t to suggest that films for children – Four Realms is rated PG – can’t or shouldn’t broach topics of loss and healing, except that’s not what the advertising or ambiance suggest. Audiences were sold a film which blends the high art of dance with Disney’s touch, so the constant moroseness is quite a shock.
More than the shock, there are moments in the film which raise strange questions of consistency and logic. Yes, it’s a film in which the main character travels to a micro-verse and an actual sugar plum fairy serves as the Regent of the Land of Sweets, but that doesn’t mean that certain rules don’t apply. When Clara first arrives in the Four Realms, she enters by way of the Christmas Tree Forest. Later, when Clara mentions Christmas to three of the Regents, one asks what Christmas is. For a group which seems to know everything about these lands, it’s odd that this Regent is unfamiliar, especially as we, along with Clara, learn that her mother ruled the Four Realms and visited many times throughout her life. The Regents are well aware of the world which Marie and Clara reside, yet their pockets of missing information are strange. Additionally, while it made sense in the original Hoffman story to focus on Marie as the hero of the tale, there’s literally no reason that Clara couldn’t call upon her own siblings except that it might make Four Realms seem even more like The Chronicles of Naria,a comparison which, in and of itself, wouldn’t be a bad thing but was perhaps something Disney wanted to avoid. Additionally, while this is Clara’s adventure, the story continually finds ways to belittle her siblings at the behest of their mother. It’s a strange aspect which, once noticed, can’t be unnoticed. There’s no reason to raise up Clara at the detriment of her siblings, however, the script seems inclined to do so. Taking these inconsistencies in combination with several dreadful uses of CGI and the illusion of the world falls to pieces. Keep in mind that Four Realms is a lovely film where the craftsmanship shines in several places, but almost all of these involved practical effects. The tangible sense of these moments bolstered the illusion of the Four Realms as a real place, whereas the obvious CGI snaps any suspension of disbelief.
Despite the weaknesses, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is not a wasted endeavor by Disney. The performances are engaging (more Helen Mirren is never a bad thing), the utilization of grief as a core narrative element in a children’s film is bold, and there’s more than a few moments that whisk you away into fantasy. In particular, Four Realms manages to capture the whimsy of the original story and utilize its ballet connection to create one of the lovelier scenes of exposition in recent memory. In this one moment, as Clara learns the history of the Four Realms, she and the audience are treated to a performance of Marius Petipa’s famous choreography and Tchaikovsky’s music plays unrestrained. Perhaps if the film had incorporated more of these moments, then it might have felt less like Chronicles and more like its own entity. Fortune favors the bold and co-directors Hallström and Johnston certainly go for it. While The Nutcracker and the Four Realms may not be the holiday staple it wishes it were, it’s certainly not a film to avoid.
Bonus features include:
- On Pointe: A Conversation with Misty Copeland
- Unwrapping “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms”
- Deleted Scenes
- The Stahlbaums Arrive
- Follow Your Ribbon
- Clara Asks About Her Mother
- Left, Left, Left, Left
- Out with the Old
- Music Video “Fall On Me” By Andrea Bocelli, Featuring Matteo Bocelli
- Music Video “The Nutcracker Suite” By Lang Lang
- Unwrapped: The Visual Effects Of The Nutcracker And The Four Realms
Available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital January 29th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.