To usher in the holiday season, Disney returns with another live-action tale for families to enjoy together. Now, the studio brings to life a new adaptation of a beloved story with “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
The new film comes from E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” from 1816. In that tale, young Marie Stahlbaum travels to a magical land with a Nutcracker who comes to life and defeats the Mouse King. Alexandre Dumas lightened the story considerably when he wrote the play. That work was set to the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and became the world-renowned ballet known simply as “The Nutcracker.”
For “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” it is Marie’s daughter Clara (Mackenzie Foy) who finds herself in the titular realms shortly after her mother’s death. The Stahlbaum family is grieving on Christmas Eve. Clara, older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber), and younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) gather as their father (Matthew Macfadyen) presents them each with one final gift from their mother. For Louise, it is her mother’s favorite dress. For Fritz, it is a set of toy soldiers. But Clara’s gift is more mysterious: a beautiful, golden egg-shaped trinket. It is locked and she doesn’t have the key.
Withdrawn and far from anything of a festive mood, Clara reluctantly goes with her family to Godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) Christmas Eve party. Against her father’s wishes, she runs off and hides away from the crowds. She finds Drosselmeyer in his whimsical workshop before having to rejoin the group.
When it is time for the children to seek their gifts from the delightfully eccentric old inventor, Clara finds herself quite unexpectedly in another place. It is a very Narnia-like introduction to the Four Realms. She discovers the key that unlocks her mother’s gift, but it is immediately stolen by a mouse who leads her on a chase in which she comes across the loyal army captain, The Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight). Together they cross paths with the terrifying Mouse King and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren).
Their travels eventually take them to the palace where Clara learns her mother was the Queen and she is a Princess. She meets Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E. Grant), regents of three of the other realms. But Mother Ginger, Regent of the Fourth Realm, has been exiled because of her dangerous ideas. In order to save the Four Realms, Clara must lead the fight.
It is a very straightforward and simple story. One that has been told many times before. But where “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” does break ground is in other, sometimes subtler ways. It is not a complicated first script from writer Ashleigh Powell, who is already contracted for several more upcoming screenplays.
Clara has an engineering mind. She understands physics and mathematics and uses her knowledge as much for amusement as she does for eventually saving the world her mother created. Much like Meg from “A Wrinkle in Time,” Clara is a sign to girls (and boys) that science is cool, and that the scientists will save us all. She is sweet and appropriately wide-eyed, while also readily accepting every strange thing she sees. Foy is well-suited to the role that is not childish but not too grown up either.
Besides Clara, Keira Knightley’s Sugar Plum has the most screen time as she plays mentor to the Princess. Her candy floss hair and high pitched voice might have been annoying if not for some very unexpected and funny moments and bits of dialogue. The other regents, Shiver and Hawthorne, might have been fun characters to explore, but they weren’t around enough to get to know them. A sequel that ventures more into Lands of Flowers and Snowflakes could be fun. And Mother Ginger’s Land of Amusements has fallen into ruin and disrepair, a scary place featuring some genuinely frightening clowns. Some of those moments might prove too much for very young children.
Jayden Fowora-Knight is a charming Nutcracker. However, considering he has the title role, it would have been nice to see him share equally in the story. He is a good support to Clara and a worthy hero. But he deserved more development. Matthew Macfadyen is almost forgotten entirely. Two bumbling soldiers (Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall) try their best to channel Ragetti and Pintel from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but it does not work.
The computer animation and production design are reminiscent of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” but more pleasant. Every enchanting moment is something grand. Almost nothing feels rooted in the real world, which makes this a wholly fantastical experience. Linus Sandgren (“First Man”) provides cinematography well-suited to the world created by director Lasse Hallström. The opening sequence features a long tracking shot that Disney fans will recognize as similar to that used in the ride Soaring Around the World. It is a dizzying but fitting entry into the fantasy version of Victorian London.
One of the most welcome and beautiful moments comes when the regents throw a party to welcome Clara. The centerpiece of the gala is an homage to the ballet. Misty Copeland, star of the American Ballet Theatre, dances the story of Clara’s mother discovering the four realms. It is a glorious opportunity to see one of the world’s most talented ballerinas. But it is something even more important, too. Our culture and appreciation for fine art are ever-shifting. As a result, we are losing our appreciation of things like ballet and classical music. For many young viewers, Copeland’s dance sequence will be their first introduction to a vanishing art form. And to have the opportunity to absorb that moment in the form of the first African American woman from ABT to dance the lead in “Swan Lake” is important too. Setting it to the music of Tchaikovsky himself makes it all the more lovely.
Jenny Beavan‘s costume designs are exquisite. She worked well with hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore. Together they created a world that perfectly blends buttoned-up Victorian style with bright, candy-colored looks.
Lasse Hallström shares directing credit with Joe Johnston. Johnston took over for reshoots and oversaw a lot of the VFX work. Hallström was reportedly unavailable after principal photography ended. Because the two did not work as a directing team, and instead handled things separately, the shift is sometimes very apparent. But in a film that is firmly intended for young audiences, most viewers won’t notice.
Overall, this is a film for families to enjoy. It doesn’t break new cinematic ground, and it might be nice to see the story moved into a more modern era. But its celebration of both science and art make it a worthwhile choice this season.