Ever since it was first published in 1816, the story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffman has been told on a variety of forums, everything from prose to pantomime, from ballet to Barbie, and all with varying degrees of success. Generally, when you hear the title The Nutcracker, most assume you’re referring to the ballet. The story’s latest incarnation, Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms from co-directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, attempts to do with Hoffman what Tim Burton did with Lewis Carroll.
As seen from the point-of-view of a gliding bird, the film begins with a fast-paced, giddying sweep across Victorian London’s Westminster area, pass the tower of Big Ben, around the Houses of Parliament, over the Cathedral, and eventually right up to the loft bedroom window of the Stahlbaum residence. It’s Christmas Eve, and inside the bedroom, the three Stahlbaum children are playing when they’re supposed to be getting ready for Godfather Drosselmeyer’s annual party.
That whole opening sequence, played out to the music of Tchaikovsky, occurs within just a few seconds and moves so fast it hardly gives time to take in the atmospheric design of London’s Christmas Eve or to savor the look of a busy nighttime Westminster Bridge at a period when it was not only horse and carriages that populated the crossing but also vendors in stalls selling their warm wares. Like the whole film, the introductory moment is gorgeously designed. With CGI it creates the perfect look of a seasonal Dickens era Christmas, but until we see the faces of the three children in the loft bedroom, you might have already forgotten that what you’re about to see is a live-action film and not an animated feature. For a brief moment, as Clara (Mackenzie Foy) and her brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) first appear, there’s an odd, jarring second of adjustment.
In this new telling, the family has lost their mother, Maria (Anna Madeley seen in a flashback). Yet, on this Christmas Eve, father (Matthew Macfadyen) gives the children each an early Christmas gift that their mother had left them. A brooding Clara, who appears to miss her mother the most and has no interest in dancing at a party, is given a silver egg to open with a note in her mother’s handwriting. It reads: ‘Everything you need is inside.’ But the egg is locked and there’s no key to be found. “I have to open it,” declares Clara. As the gift was designed by Godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), Clara’s enthusiasm to go to his Christmas Eve party is suddenly renewed. If anyone has the key, it has to be her godfather.
While the invited guests dance and swirl around the heavenly designed Christmas tree to James Newton Howard’s adapted Tchaikovsky score, Clara tiptoes away to find Godfather Drosselmeyer and hopefully the key that will eventually open the silver egg. From there, by following a rope that leads her into a dark hallway, like the children from Narnia who enter the wardrobe and come out the other end in a parallel snow-laden world, so too does Clara. From there, with the adventures she encounters and the characters she meets, the film develops into an Alice in Christmas Wonderland, though instead of having doubts and occasionally showing fear, this particular Alice is quite the take-charge go-getter from the outset. “I guess I’m not in London anymore,” she says, echoing yet another perennial holiday favorite. Clara is determined to find that key no matter what, though as she soon discovers, there is someone else who also desires it, but for a more ominous reason.
From the moment Clara enters this new world until she eventually leaves and the adventure is done, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the luxuriant production design that dominates practically every frame. But while the images astonish and the effects dazzle, the adventure itself never quite takes hold. It’s surprising how something so lavish in its look with so promising a setup in its Victorian London setting can feel so unengaging and lacking in charm so soon in its telling. It’s as if everyone tried too hard with how things looked and neglected what’s required to tell an absorbing plot. The film is like the creative icing on an undeniably gorgeous cake, one that’s full of empty calories and off-the-chart carbohydrates.
Clara becomes embroiled in an adventure where tin soldiers come to life and threaten a fanatical takeover, yet there’s never a moment where it feels as though the lead characters are ever in any real jeopardy. The danger is missing. There’s nothing that has you on the edge of your seat wondering what happens next; it just goes through the motions.
Early marketing hype talked of diversity in its casting, which is true. The first black American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history, Misty Copeland makes a brief appearance as a ballerina; Mexican actor/comedian Eugenio Derbez appears as the Flower Realm King; while English born black actor Jayden Fowora-Knight plays the Nutcracker, here named Captain Hoffman, an acknowledgment to the character’s original author, yet all three are underused. In Fowora-Knight’s case, this is particularly surprising as he’s the title character, but by removing any hint of the romance that is traditionally a major part of Clara and her beloved nutcracker prince’s story, the soldier is merely a supporting player in his own tale. Look at the poster. It’s called The Nutcracker yet you can hardly see him among the faces. The young man, whose only previous screen role was that of ‘Boy Playing Tennis’ in Spielberg’s Ready Player One is given no chance of making an impact.
Only Keira Knightly as the Sugar Plum Fairy and a delightful Mackenzie Foy as Clara emerge with acting honors. In Knightly’s case, her fairy tale character delivers every line with a constantly amusing squeaky toned voice until the moment when tables are turned, motivations are changed, and a secret desire is revealed. As those sinister tin soldiers come alive and are given their marching orders, Sugar Plum’s voice dips as she declares, “Boys in uniforms with weapons. Sends a quiver right through me.”
When Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story was released in 1983 it hit theatres in November and practically disappeared by Thanksgiving. But due to a growing popularity that was never expected, certainly not by MGM, some theatre managers requested it brought back. It’s now considered a modern classic. While The Nutcracker and the Four Realms appears to be following that same extra early Christmas release pattern, the similarity ends. Despite its beauty, with its lack of magic and an inability to fully engage, it’s doubtful it’ll be around much longer after this year’s Thanksgiving. And by Christmas when it should be shown, when you think of Clara, Drosselmeyer, and the Nutcracker, it won’t be the missed opportunity of the Disney feature that springs to mind. That will have faded from memory weeks earlier. It’ll still be a ballet.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 99 Minutes