Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman
Directors: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Writer: Ashleigh Powell
The tale that we know as The Nutcracker originally comes from an 1816 short story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann about a young girl called Marie who helps the Nutcracker defeat the evil Mouse King and follows him to a magical kingdom populated by dolls where she sees many wondrous things. This story formed the basis for the libretto to the Tchaikovsky ballet where they enormously simplified what was already a pretty uncomplicated story in order to fit a two-act structure that could accommodate several extended dance sequences with the minimal (if any) use of plot. In the century since its composition The Nutcracker has grown into a phenomenon that continues to be performed all over the world with music that ranks among the most beloved and familiar in the entire classical canon. It has also become one of the many public domain properties that Hollywood likes to readapt and reinvent every so often. Since it’s been a little over eight years since The Nutcracker last received the cinematic treatment (which is about four decades in Hollywood years), Disney has thus revived the story once again, this time with not one, not two, not even three, but four realms.
I would have thought that if anything could serve as an example to cinema of how to create a visual spectacle and convey a story through actions, expressions and gestures rather than dialogue, it would be a ballet. Such inspiration would be invaluable to a fairy tale such as this where the audience’s investment depends on their being bewitched by a spell of cinematic majesty and whimsical feeling. Nothing kills this spell faster or more assuredly than the logic and banality that comes with conventional narrative and explanatory dialogue. Think of the silent charm of My Neighbour Totoro or the dream-like wonder of The Wizard of Oz. How much more trite and tiresome would these movies be if they relentlessly apologised for being fairy tales by explaining what everything is and how they work and adding conflict and circumstances beyond what’s needed to set up the characters’ motivations and the emotional stakes? What if, instead of the living manifestation of the cruelties and horrors of the grown-up world in Dorothy’s adolescent eyes, the Wicked Witch of the West was shown as more of a diabolical tyrant bent on conquering Oz using the ruby slippers? What if we were treated to endless exposition detailing the history and politics of Oz and the mechanics of the ruby slippers and their magical powers before eventually watching Dorothy lead the Munchkins to liberation from the evil baddie which (spoiler) turns out to be Glinda or the Wizard or perhaps the Cowardly Lion for all I care? What would any of that have to do with the movie’s timeless message that there’s no place like home?
That fairy tales do not all have to be remodelled into fantasy epics is something that Disney used to understand. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Jungle Book and the 1951 Alice in Wonderland are all films that barely have plots to speak of because they are so much more interested in exploring their worlds and characters and finding ways to enchant the audience (all three have since been given remakes by Disney which attempted to add greater stakes to their stories). When the epic narrative does work and you get an empowering film like Frozen that’s one thing, but even that is a story that relies more on emotion than logic. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has more in common with the 2010 Alice in Wonderland, a film that tried to apply a logical plot in the form of a chosen-one narrative to a story that not only worked but thrived without one. When you try to apply reason to a fantastical story, you’re inviting the viewer to apply a level of scrutiny that outlandish plots, strange happenings and bizarre characters cannot easily stand up against. That film not only completely missed the point in terms of what made the Lewis Carroll books so wonderful, it also failed on its own terms with a dull protagonist and a tired, predictable story that failed to score a single emotional beat. This movie isn’t as bad as that but it has many of the same problems.
The hero of this tale is the generically smart and resourceful Clara (Mackenzie Foy), the daughter of Marie from the original story. She and her family are going through their first Christmas together since the mother’s passing and her loss is still deeply felt. On Christmas Eve Clara and her siblings, elder sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), are each bequeathed a gift left to them by their mother. Clara receives a strange Fabergé egg, one without a key or any other apparent means of opening it. The family then heads for their usual Christmas ball, held every year by Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) where her father Benjamin (Matthew Macfadyen) expects her to put on a happy face and dance with him. Clara doesn’t feel much like dancing though and instead seeks out her godfather with whom she shares a passion for mechanisms and machinery. She learns that it was he who first built the silver egg for Marie and that she had always wanted to pass it on to her daughter. When the time comes for the children to receive their gifts from the evening’s host, Clara follows the trail leading to hers and stumbles into a world quite unlike her own.
Thus Clara finds herself in the same magical world that her mother discovered as a young girl, a world of snow, flowers, sweets and mice. However, in the years since Marie first arrived, the world of the Four Realms has fallen on hard times. Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements has declared war on the other three realms, a war that has engulfed the realms in destruction and chaos. Clara meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) who remembers her mother well and reveals that she is the princess of the Four Realms. It falls onto her to defend the Lands of Sweet, Snowflakes and Flowers from the wrath of the Fourth Realm and to restore peace once again. What follows is a hero’s journey as Clara braves the dangers of the Four Realms, finds the answers she seeks to the questions left by her mother, and learns to trust in herself. Oh, also there’s a Nutcracker in the film. He’s a soldier boy played by Jayden Fowora-Knight who occasionally helps Clara but otherwise is sort of just there. There is absolutely no reason for him to be the titular character except that Disney wouldn’t be able to franchise this movie without the Nutcracker name.
Like with Tim Burton’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms demonstrates the futility of trying to incorporate a by the numbers plot into a story that’s guided by feeling rather than logic. Narrative conventions that we can see coming from a million miles away and lengthy explanations about who everyone is, what exactly is happening and where they need to go next cannot help but drain the spell of its magic. Nowhere is this more evident than in what is by default the film’s best scene. This is when Clara and the residents of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace gather before a stage to watch a re-enactment of the Four Realms’ history in the form of, what else, a ballet. This scene features real sets and practical effects, Tchaikovsky’s original music and a cameo by Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a prima ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre. This would be an inspired way to provide the audience with an entire wealth of exposition and pay tribute to the story’s origins while still allowing them to marvel in the wonder and whimsicalness of this universe. If only the Sugar Plum Fairy could stop nattering away every five seconds with her incessant commentary on what’s actually happening because she doesn’t appear to understand how ballet works! If this film had enough confidence in its own wondrousness that it didn’t feel the need to hold the viewer’s hand all the way through, this scene could have been spectacular.
Even then, however, that ballet scene would simply have been the highlight in an unremarkable film with a formulaic plot and a bland protagonist. Clara, I gather, is intended to be a response to the Victorian heroine archetype that her mother fell under; these pretty, joyful and otherwise unremarkable young girls who assume passive roles in their own stories and more often than not need to be rescued by the male hero. This heroine however is no damsel in distress; she’s clever, talented and brave, all good qualities for a main character to have. She’s also as dull as a rock. The movie operates on the assumption that making the main character technically savvy and having her fight a few soldiers counts as giving her a personality, but actions don’t mean much if there’s isn’t some kind of feeling or motivation inspiring them. The film tries to make this the grief that Clara feels from losing her mother, but there’s so little there of substance that the movie cannot hope to make it bear the weight of its emotional crux (on a side note, I find it funny how Clara was clearly the mother’s favourite to the point that her two siblings don’t matter in the slightest). Foy doesn’t manage to bring any kind of spark to her character and mostly just drifts between scenes without direction, acting like she’s more interested in looking the part of the pretty princess than she is in becoming the resourceful, adventurous girl wonder that the film wants her to be (for more on what a brilliant, daring, inventive princess with a spirited personality can be, see Shuri in Black Panther and Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).
It seems that most of the effort went into making this film look the part and there are some aspects worth praising. The costumes and make up make for some fun character designs such as Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy, whose frilly dress and elaborate hair-do is entirely imbued with the sugary pink of cotton candy, and Freeman’s Dorsselmeyer, a Victorian nobleman sporting a steampunk ballroom get-up, an eyepatch and an owl perched on his shoulder. A film depicting exactly how a black man of such mysteriousness and eccentricity became an upstanding member of society in Victorian London would have been enormously fascinating. The production design also yields some picturesque sights, most notably in the ballet scene. Yet little of the film’s visual splendour is rooted in a personality it can call its own. The scene where Clara wonders into the enchanting forest of the snowflake realm could have been copied and pasted straight from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mother Ginger’s lair and the cartoonish clowns that inhabit it look like something Tim Burton would design. The movie mostly feels like it was guided by a corporate obligation to assemble certain scenes in some mandated order and seldom feels like it’s trying to tell the story of itself. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie so lost in its search for an identity that it is only through the occasional recurrence of Tchaikovsky’s music that you’re reminded what it is you’re even watching.