Arguably, the most successful holiday ballet of all-time is The Nutcracker, with its iconic score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is a monster success for many ballet companies and even has a brilliant version titled the Hip-Hop Nutcracker that mixes Tchaikovsky’s music with hip-hop dance routines.
With that in mind, it is a no-brainer that a studio like Disney would want to try to bring it to life and they finally did so in the 2018 holiday season. But, did The Nutcracker and the Four Realms hold a candle to the iconic ballet?
Yes and no.
The ballet is a simple two-act play where the first act sees Clara at a Christmas party where she gets a wooden nutcracker that she likes. However, her younger brother breaks it. Clara returns that night, finds the Mouse King closing in on the Nutcracker and she saves it. The Nutcracker becomes a prince, takes her to the Land of Sweets where they celebrate with the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Disney changed almost everything about this story (as well as the E. T. A. Hoffmann story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) to make it work for the big screen.
The movie opens with Clara (Mackenzie Foy) showing her younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) a mouse trap she made, which is basically a giant Rube Goldberg machine. It is basically foreshadowing what is to come.
Clara, Fritz and their sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) are celebrating their first Christmas without their mother, who recently passed away. Their dad (Matthew Macfadyen) is obviously mourning as well, although Clara is unable to see this because to her he just wants to move on as if nothing happened.
He forces the kids to attend a party at Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) home. Clara seeks him out because he is created a locked egg-shaped box her mother left for her and she can’t get it opened.
Drosselmeyer is unable to help, but during the party, he has gifts for all the children in attendance. The kids find a string with their name on it and then follow the string to find their present. Clara follows hers to a snowy kingdom that she enters at the end of a long hallway and finds a key — the key to the egg.
However, a mouse steals it and races off into the woods and it is up to Clara and a live Nutcracker soldier named Captain Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) to find the mouse and the key.
It is here that Clara learns her mother visited the Four Realms many years before and brought all the toys to life, giving them this beautiful kingdom and becoming their queen. However, a war broke out after she left and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kiera Knightley) tells Clara that if they don’t stop Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the Four Realms will be lost.
To start, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a beautiful movie. Early on in the film, I thought I was watching something by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina), and to me, that is a huge compliment.
The dance scenes at the party look like they could come straight out of one of his epic films. It is extravagant and the costume design alone makes this movie really stand out. The design is Oscar-worthy for sure.
The acting is also good. Mackenzie Foy is great as the young lead and Keira Knightley is deliciously over-the-top as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
With that said, the story itself is really flimsy and too many things happen just to move the plot alone. The scenes when Clara first meets Mother Ginger are frightening and scary, but later you have to question why. That is the problem here. The movie has a specific goal in mind but it can’t seem to stick the landing properly.
Part of the problem might be that Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) directed the movie and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) directed the re-shoots. It seems there was a disconnect somewhere along the way. There were way too many troubling concerns about the story itself coming out of the screening.
However, despite the story concerns, this is a beautiful movie with some awe-inspiring scenes. The film is one that should excite younger audiences and it has a strong thematic backing of the importance of family that should resonate this time of the year.
It was also wonderful to hear the music of Tchaikovsky accompany the scenes in the movie. His score is still one of the most iconic in the history of ballet.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is not a perfect film and is far from it. Most people will have forgotten about it by the time the holiday movie season is in full swing but this isn’t a disaster by any means. It is a light-weight Disney effort that is well worth a family night out while it is still on the big screen.