The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Disney has spent a great deal of money hoping that this version of The Nutcracker will be repeat holiday viewing for years and years to come.
Dazzling visuals, coupled with great costumes and production design, keep us engaged throughout.
Individually, there are some nice moments: Misty Copeland’s ballet scenes. The glimpse we get in Mackenzie Foy’s talents as a young actor. The discovery of Jayden Fowora-Knight. The flourishes of Tchaikovsky’s familiar music.
Diplomatically speaking, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a mess.
There is no soul to any of this. Everything is about appearances - making this entire endeavor vain and emotionless.
At a reported $130 million price tag, DIsney has made an inoffensive movie that can play in the background for many a holiday season to come. Basically, this might be our new $130 million Yule Log video.
A Disney recreation of the legendary story The Nutcracker is, in and of itself, not a bad idea. Originally written in 1816, in short-story form by E.T.A. Hoffmann, millions and millions of people have experienced some manifestation of the story. The Tchaikovsky-infused ballet, written by Marius Petipa, is a holiday institution, certainly true out here in Seattle where the show sells out nearly every performance for four or five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Over the years and decades, The Nutcracker has become not just a holiday property, but an indelible part of the Christmas season. And so, again, Disney’s decision to run this story through their Disney machine and manufacture something memorable for the big screen makes sense.
And then the lights dimmed.
Admittedly, I have no idea what happened in bringing The Nutcracker to the big screen, but this $130 million production is all look and no feel. Rare is the movie that works so incredibly hard on its look, presentation, and world-building, only to forget to craft a proper plot, give depth and/or agency to its characters, and simply green-light the wildest concepts from a pre-production meeting that seemingly went wildly off the rails.
Maybe I’m butchering this, but isn’t there an old adage that says something like: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should?”
To be fair, this iteration of the story – The Nutcracker and the Four Realms – looks like a million bucks, or, actually, $130 million of those bucks, but never finds a way to make anything matter to the wide-eyed families trying to make sense of all of what directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston throw at them.
A little digging starts to reveal some trouble in bringing this film to the big screen. Hallström and Johnston are credited co-directors who never collaborated on the project. Hallström’s cut was apparently not winning over Disney brass, so Johnston was hired to come onboard. His reshoots, changes, additions, etc. were significant enough to earn him a co-director’s credit.
And that makes sense when you really try and sort through the film. As messy and unfocused as this is, you start to wonder if all the dazzle and pizazz exists to mask over the film’s troubles.
Teenage daughter Clara (Mackenzie Foy, asked to carry a lot of this hodgepodge on her shoulders), is struggling with the recent death of her mother. Her father (Matthew Macfadyen) insists, in fact demands, that his three children (Clara has a younger sister and brother) keep up appearances when they attend a Christmas ball, hosted by the children’s godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman).
Prior to attending the event, each child received a posthumous Christmas gift from their mother, each with personal meaning to the children. Clara however receives a decorative egg, clasped by a lock which seems to be missing a key. At the party, the children play a gift-finding game where they must follow a colored rope. Clara tracks onto a golden rope which seems to go on for an impossibly long distance, ultimately leading her to the hollowed out bottom of a fallen tree – the gateway to a timeless, magical place known as The Four Realms.
The realms, overseen by a specific person, consists of the Land of Flowers, the Land of Sweets, the Land of Amusements, and the Land of Snowflakes.
Once Clara finds this new world, Hallström and/or Johnston has a choice to make: Do we amplify the elements of The Nutcracker ballet which people love? Do we dive into Hoffmann’s story and bring his written word to life? Do we overwhelm the audience with visual effects, costumes, colors, production design, and a lilting score?
Yes, apparently. Yes to all of it! And let’s do it basically all at the same time!
So, as we pause and watch the exquisite work of Misty Copeland in a gorgeous, untethered ballet sequence, we pivot to a jumbled, convoluted adventure story drenched in visual effects and CGI, which feels hollow, empty, and really kind of weird.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, First Man) seems lost in his own movie and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms just never seems to find its center. Helen Mirren shows up as the dastardly villainous porcelain-doll faced Mother Ginger, but says little of memorable substance. Keira Knightley’s bubbly, helium-tinged performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy is an impossible task for the seasoned actor to pull off.
The film’s best character is Clara’s friend Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the nutcracker soldier who aides her in her quest to #MakeTheFourRealmsGreatAgain. And yet, he becomes a casualty to post-production enhancements, big budget tomfoolery, and a shambolic screenplay from first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell.
By the end, Foy gives this movie her all and strikes some nice moments with Philip and a few other characters. But you can only ask someone to do so much, especially an emerging young actor. And whether she’s in an adventure sequence, acting alongside CGI characters, or trying to give life to the faint heartbeat of this story, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms cannibalizes her in a suffocating film which begs us to look at the pretty pictures and not focus on the nonsensical story being told.
Maybe this isn’t all bad. Honestly, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms could likely play just fine, in the background, year after year, on cable, during the holiday season, while people are preoccupied doing other things.
And so, upon reflection, I guess some congratulations are indeed in order. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is now the most expensive crackling Yule Log-style video ever made.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Miranda Hart, Jack Whitehall, Ellie Bamber, Lil Buck, Sergei Polunin, Tom Sweet, Meera Syal.
Director: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Written by: Ashleigh Powell (screenplay, screen story)
Suggested by the short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann
Suggested by the ballet “The Nutcracker” by Marius Petipa
Release Date: November 2, 2018
Walt Disney Pictures