It’s a given Disney will alter familiar tales to suit current tastes. In many cases, this has been for the best. After all, the original tales are generally still in print and not hard to find. Disney simply uses them as source material.
For example, having a little girl spending all that time with the huntsman may not have seemed creepy in the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White, but Uncle Walt correctly decided she should be an adult in his cartoon. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is remarkably glum, but we’d be diminished if we didn’t have the upbeat calypso songs Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote for the Disney version.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
75 Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Matthew Macfadyen, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Morgan Freeman, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Eugenio Derbez, Misty Copeland
Directors: Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston
Rating: PG, for some mild peril Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
With The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, writer Ashleigh Powell and directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston seem to have have difficulty deciding where to follow E.T.A Hoffmann’s short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (and the Marius Petipa ballet it inspired) and where to leave the wooden soldier behind.
The present Nutcracker starts with familiar tropes and Tchaikovsky, then struggles with finding interesting content of its own.
One intriguing touch is that young Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) enthusiast more interested in Rube Goldberg-like mouse traps than ballgowns. This is actually a credible subject for a movie set in the 19th century. (After all, that’s when Ada Lovelace developed what would become computer programming. Are we in for a steam-punk Nutcracker? Alas, no.)
Clara and her family are distraught because her mother has just died. Her stickler father (Matthew Macfadyen) is especially overcome with grief.
As a final act, her mother gave Clara a mechanical egg worthy of Faberge as a Christmas present, but failed to give her the key as well. Her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, playing yet another sage-like character) offers some clues that lead her into a Narnia-like world that is split into four different realms.
Before getting too worked up over which region is which, Clara discovers that she’s the de facto queen of this world and has to bring the unruly fourth realm under control. Her allies include Shiver (Richard E. Grant), who rules the snowflakes and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), who rules the flowers.
Despite being played by some formidable actors, neither does much other than stand or talk behind pounds of makeup.
The Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) goes out of her way to endear herself to Clara because she might be the one person who can help her create an army of life-size tin soldiers to defeat Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who lives in a disturbing robot with acrobatic clowns.
It takes a long time for Clara to reach her kingdom, and some of her new friends are downright forgettable. As the title character, Jayden Fowora-Knight is asked to do nothing more than look grimly resolute.
Having an interlude where ballerina Misty Copeland re-enacts part of the familiar story is another problem, even though she’s delightful to watch as she revokes the laws of gravity. Because the plot is thin and meandering, it might have been better to simply film her playing Clara the way she would on stage and take the story from there.
Hallstrom had a scheduling conflict when reshoots were needed and handed the helm to Johnston. He returned during post-production. So while it’s hard to say which director shot which scenes without looking at a call sheet, the tone and abrupt pace result in a movie that does neither filmmaker any favors.
Loaded with lush period settings and a meticulously detailed fantasy environment. La La Land’s Linus Sandgren shot The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in 65 mm, and the details are sharp and occasionally gorgeous. In the end, however, the effect is like a beautifully framed picture of dogs playing poker.
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