Director: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Omid Djalili, Jack Whitehall, Morgan Freeman
The Nutcracker is probably most famous in its musical suite and balletic form, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and featuring one of the most famous scores in classical music history by Tchaikovsky, including the well-known (and arguably over-used) Danse de la Fée-Dragée (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Grand ballabile (Waltz of the Flowers). There have been many other musical, film, television and book adaptations and interpretations over the years, particularly around December as Christmas approaches, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Disney’s latest take on the fairytale. Considering the spectacle and the grandeur that the trailer promises, does Disney’s take offer everything audiences would expect of a Nutcracker story, or is it lacking the nuts?
Young Clara Stahlbaum (Foy) lives a pretty well-off life with her father (Macfadyen), younger brother Fritz (Sweet) and older sister Louise (Bamber). Having recently lost their mother, Clara turns to imagination to distract her, frequenting the attic and the toys up there. Her father, although clearly sad, tries to keep calm and carry on, often dismissing Clara’s feelings. On Christmas Eve the children all receive gifts from their mother, having instructed their father before her death to hand them out on Christmas Eve. Fritz receives a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier, Louise receives her mother’s dress, and Clara receives a fancy-looking egg-shaped box that is locked without a key. The family then gather with hundreds more at a posh party at the home of inventor, family friend and Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman). As seems to be a tradition at this annual event, the children are all encouraged to follow a piece of string that will lead them to a gift. Upon following her string, Clara finds herself in a snowy forest in another land. She finds the key here, but it is stolen away by a mouse. Not long after, she meets the human incarnation of the nutcracker, a soldier of the realm here named Philip (Fowora-Knight). Together they embark on an adventure across the four realms in search of the key, meeting the regents of the realms as they go – The Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), Mother Ginger (Mirren), Hawthorne (Derbez) and Shiver (Grant). Events then follow that culminate if Clara having to fight for the safety of the four realms.
As plots go, it’s a fairly standard story: young child finds his/herself in a magical land where he/she is either already someone important whom the people of the land are aware of and are in need of desperate help from, or is unknown to the inhabitants but becomes important as he/she proves his/herself. It’s really nothing new, but that’s to be expected of what is essentially a classic story, at least up to a point. Hallström and Johnston follow the original Nutcracker story more or less up until Clara reaches the palace and meets the regents of the realms. From here it becomes its own rather bland story. The fantastical elements, such as the way in which the inhabitants of the realms came to be and the different lands in which they live, aren’t particularly imaginative in comparison to the likes of The Wizard of Oz. Maybe it’s because of the love for older epic fantasies that it becomes difficult for newcomers to stand up against them, as originality is harder to come by, but it just doesn’t have the same scope or level of imagination. Even the way in which Clara enters the realms initially is not too dissimilar from Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
On the other hand, this is purely from an adult perspective. Children may garner more fun and enjoyment from Four Realms, as it is bursting with colour and wonder that is often regarded very differently through younger eyes. The heroes and villains are very clearly distinguished with no muddling middle ground, and it also features a small twist that children may marvel at but where adults will be thoroughly unsurprised. Adults may find enjoyment in the small addition of ballet and classical music (if that’s what they’re in to) and the depth of story when it comes to Clara’s family and what they’ve suffered as they try to come out the other side (ALLEGORY ALERT). It would have been nice to hear more of the Tchaikovsky score and the Petipa and Ivanov ballet, not just for the entertainment but as a way to introduce children to the art forms before they grow up and such things become relatively ‘uncool’ (not to all children but certainly to many). It was, from one point of view, disappointing to see the music and dance so underused. Sugar Plum does use an extract to teach Clara how the realms came to be, but as you really get into watching the dance, it ends. From another perspective however, for a young audience it may have been a good idea to keep this minimal before they become too restless, as it probably would stall the film somewhat, but for adults, who don’t really get anything from this movie, it’s a nice change of pace.
As far as performances go they are OK. There’s not really another way to describe them. American Mackenzie Foy does a completely perfect English accent – if you didn’t know going in that she’s American, you wouldn’t know going out either. It’s a talent not many American actors have. Her ability as a leading actress is still a little wanting as her youth probably holds back her confidence, however the potential is certainly there and it undoubtedly won’t be long before we see her fronting more pictures. Knightley as Sugar Plum was a pleasant surprise – she’s often typecast for her Britishness, making her characters often rather similar, so it was enjoyable to see something quite different from her. What makes Sugar Plum different is how Knightley uses her voice and plays with characteristics. She goes much higher than normal which could come across as annoying, but as Knightley already has ‘annoying posh voice’ in her repertoire, Sugar Plum’s voice is a welcome relief. She also uses it to convey different personalities of Sugar Plum in a sense, something you’ll understand should you see the film as an explanation will give away too much. But then we have Fowora-Knight as the nutcracker Philip. His performance is rather wooden, ironically, and it may be down to inexperience with this being his first major role (and second film role overall) according to his IMDb, though he does still make Philip a likable character. Philip is also worlds away from The Nutcracker’s original princely character, whom the nutcracker is supposed to become. This could either be good, in the sense that Clara does not require a prince or a love story, or bad, in that it’s often known as an integral part of the classic story. Either way, it’s probably best Philip was kept to a lesser role than the prince, as Fowora-Knight may not have been able to measure up to a more significant role at this point in his career. Mirren popping up was a bit random, as this film does not seem like something you might expect her to pop up in. If she did it for fun, that’s fine, and being Helen Mirren she does rock her part, however Mother Ginger is a character below Mirren’s level. Something similar could be said of Freeman’s role had Drosselmeyer been more of a substantial character, but his appearance is far more brief than the trailer would have you think. Like Mirren, being Morgan Freeman he perfects the role below his grade. Little comedic roles that feature the likes of Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall are most likely there so the adults can point and say ‘isn’t that what’s-his-face off the telly’. They may also give the kids a chuckle or two.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a by-the-numbers film that the kids may enjoy, particularly if they are fans of fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland and/or The Wizard of Oz. It’s really not got a lot for adults, so if you have young children, take them to see this then close your eyes for an hour and a half, if you can. Maybe open them to take in the odd joke or witness Foy’s performance, but don’t put too much emphasis on needing to enjoy it. It’s a shame, as it’s not the Christmassy film it could have been nor does it have the fantastical elements that often make a film such as this transport its audience to another world, which is disappointing of a Disney film. At least Disney has a chance to make it up with Ralph Breaks the Internet later this month.