Christmas films seem to come earlier-and-earlier with each year, and this year it is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms offering the first, and familiar taste, of the season. Directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston had the unenviable task of creating a synergy between Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and, the work the famous ballet was based from, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. For the most part, Hallström and Johnston’s adaption works, creating a family holiday film indebted to its lineage, even while it’s hampered by underdevelopment.
The film opens with a gorgeous sweep of London during Christmas. Nesteled in-between the images of snow and children playing, is a house occupied by a family. The first two children we see are Clara (Mackenzie Foy) and Fritz (Tom Sweet), in the attic playing with a Goldberg Machine. From this scene, we understand that Clara is clever (you’ll hear that adjective thrown around a bit in this film). Later, we also meet her sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and her father Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen). Her mother Maria, the character at the center of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker, has recently passed and the family is still trying to carry on. In the foreground, there’s tension between what Clara sees as an uncaring father and a father who doesn’t wish to openly mourn.
On Christmas Eve, they’re all given one last gift from their mother. Clara’s gift is essentially a faberge egg which has no key to open it. The only note that accompanies it says that “all you need is inside.”
Clara finds her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), a magician and machinist, to find a way to open the egg. He in-turn has her follow a yellow thread, leading from his home to the Four Realms. The film borrows its initial imagery of the Four Realms from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Clara upon entering into this new land exits from a tree, and many of the forest scenes look eerily similar to Disney’s 2010 adaption of Alice in Wonderland. The yellow thread acts an homage to the yellow brick road. At one point, Clara even takes a hot balloon to tour the realms.
Upon entering The Four realms she meets Philip, a Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight), guarding a bridge she must cross to catch a mouse who’s stolen her key. Later, she meets 3 of the 4 heads of the realms: Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) who leads the Land of Sugar, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) who oversees the Land of Flower, and Shiver (Richard E. Grant) who commands the Land of Snowflake. However, one of the heads is banished, Ginger (Helen Mirren), head of The Land of Amusement, because she attempted to conquer the other three realms. The remaining heads hope that Clara can find the key, so they can raise an army of tin soldiers to defend themselves. Knightley is fantastic as Sugar Plum, featuring a high pitch voice that sounds like a mix of Moaning Myrtle and Betty Boop (don’t fight that sound in your head).
Grant and Mirren are both wretchedly underutilized, and so is Freeman for that matter. If there’s a major weakness of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms it’s the lack of character development. Mirren is the villain, but she doesn’t take center stage until the final 25 minutes of the film. And even then, she plays a supporting role with very few lines. Grant appears for brief stints during the film’s first and third acts. Clara’s siblings are also afterthoughts. That’s to be expected, but Fritz (the younger brother) is one of the first faces we see on screen. He’s also given this tiny arc as a devil child, but nothing comes of it. And Clara herself, past being described as clever (as if that’s a surprise), is written as stilted as tin soldiers.
Though set in London, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms makes several allusions to its Russian origins, from the egg to the architecture of the Four realms. There’s also the Russian nesting dolls Clara meets while in The Land of Amusement, which quite literally become nightmare fuel.
The most stirring portion of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the ballet within the story sequence. As Clara and the other heads of the realms sit, they watch The Nutcracker performed by Misty Copeland playing the ballerina princess. The segment begins with a silhouetted orchestra, an homage to Fantasia, and later transitions to a dazzling array of interchanging set pieces. The ballet sequence is short, maybe too short, and one wonders if Disney should have followed through with more ballet scenes. Copeland adds a sense of gravitas that the film could have used more of. The sets, lighting, and especially the costumes are highlights. Don’t be surprised if this film is nominated for Best Makeup and Production Design and wins for Best Costume Design.
As the film progresses, Clara learns more about her mother and finds greater confidence in herself. Most of the film’s third act borrows heavily from the Santa Clause 3, take from that what you will, and builds to an anti-climactic conclusion that lacks any real danger. Still, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a family film and at that it does succeed. It’s sufficiently funny and thoughtful without being too campy. It’ll be a hand-me-down ornament for your holiday film season.