Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Lasse Hallström & Joe Johnston

Writer: Ashleigh Powell

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG

Life lesson, dear reader:

When there are more directors than screenwriters credited to a single film, proceed with caution.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The mouse king, a large, creepy-looking creature made up of hundreds of constantly moving mice, is menacing toward Clara and Phillip and grabs people/carries them away covered in teeming mice. Soldiers use their swords. A group of unsettling clowns defends Mother Ginger’s eerie, deserted-amusement-park lair and begin to attack Clara and Phillip. Peril/danger for Clara and Phillip. A battle between living toys leads to several close calls, including moments when it looks like Clara or Phillip will be injured or worse. Soldiers fall into holes dug in the dirt by mice (presumably they sprout out somewhere else; no human casualties are apparent). A carousel is crushed by a swarm of mice, and soldiers fall and look unconscious/unmoving. Mother Ginger’s scarring could bother some kids. Clara’s mother, Marie, has died; her death isn’t shown, but a flashback suggests her pain/illness, and her surviving family members are very much grieving her loss.

Language/Crude Humor: One use of “damned.” Also “poo” (as an exclamation) and “oh my God.”

Sexual Content: Very mild flirting between Clara and Phillip. Sugar Plum makes a couple of suggestive-sounding remarks about the tin soldiers: “Hello, boys” and “Boys in uniforms with weapons send a quiver right through me.”

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some tense familial conflict born out by grief.

Positive Content:  Positive messages about believing in yourself, using your talents, persevering, knowing when to ask for help, learning from mistakes. Clara’s journey is filled with self-doubt, but once she learns to believe in her gifts and follow her instincts, things turn out for the best. Also the film depicts how loneliness and sadness can lead to bitterness and sense of abandonment. Characters tackle grief and figure out how to communicate through their pain. Clara is very interested in STEM-related subjects (invention, machinery, science); movie celebrates that.

Clara is clever, courageous, and selfless. She wants to help bring peace to the Four Realms, even if it means leading a charge against enemy forces. She cares about her mother’s creation and legacy in the Four Realms. She uses her smarts to repair what’s broken. Captain Phillip is brave and attempts to protect Clara against those who might hurt her. Godfather Drosselmeyer is encouraging and supportive of Clara. Clara’s father is in pain but trying his best with his kids. Supporting/background cast is notably diverse. Characters are betrayed by someone they trust.

Review

All right, Disney, we got things to discuss.

Look, few people have been more on board with your “live-action remakes of your animated classics” kick than I have. Many saw it as a mindless cash grab with no opportunity for real creativity and innovation, and while that is always a threat in every undertaking of commercial art, I found that it was rather presumptuous to see such hollow failures as a given in this case.  Thankfully, you have succeeded in demonstrating the value of this movement through a number of winning productions. I would even say on net balance, the successes outweigh the failures.

Granted, the run got off to an incredibly rocky start. I’m still not sure how someone like Tim Burton could manage to botch up a live-action follow-up on Alice in Wonderland, but by God, he figured it out with his tactless use of grotesquery and contrived action set pieces. With that said–and with the utter travesty of Maleficent being gracefully passed over for the time being–I was overjoyed that there were many who managed to bring new life and vision to such timeless works in your vault.

I’ve stated in my review of your other live-action outing from earlier this year that you’ve made some very noteworthy turns over the last few films, and I’m honestly eager to see each new release make equal or greater returns. There are pre-existing caveats that should be considered in the success of these works, though.

With every entry in this revisionist movement, there are a few conditions that have been generally accepted as markers of success. One is that the work mustn’t simply be an adaptation of its animated predecessor. Favreau’s Jungle Book made a number of smart decisions, especially in building a more concrete establishment on Shere Khan’s motivations and drawing deeper on the unease between Mowgli and his feral surroundings.

Another element of accomplishment would be that the remake brings us into a more sophisticated understanding of the source material such as in Cinderella (2015). Sir Kenneth’s numerous choices to emphasize the lead heroine’s strength of character in the face of adversity made her into a much fuller and resonant protagonist than the somewhat milquetoast title character of the otherwise remarkable 1951 animated feature. It also helps that less attention was given to the murine side characters this time around.

Probably the most important token of achievement for any of these live-action cycles is that they manage to improve upon what their animated predecessors brought to us. The original 1977 Pete’s Dragon was, in all honesty, not even a good movie; so finding room for improvement there was no Herculean task. With all that said, there are a number of selections from your vault that ought to be left their place in history, Disney.

I’ve recently caught wind of your teaser trailer for Aladdin. You should know just as well as I do that with Mr. Williams is no longer with us, the heart and soul of that title cannot be realized as magnificently as before. That is far from the more asinine decision to remake The Lion King via live action. What do you even mean “live action”? There’s no way you’re gonna train hyenas to act for the cameras.

With regard to one of your earliest masterpieces, Fantasia, the reason why that ought not to be tampered with in your live action reboot campaign is precisely because it was a project squarely devoted to the artistic marriage of animation and music. Its nature as an animated work is essential to its impact and identity. To trade that off for the live action treatment would be to produce a film so wholly distinctive from the source material that it would be misleading for it to share a name.

Probably the first– and arguably only–good choice made with your latest entry in the movement is to distance it from the source with its title, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. I’ll admit, I was rather captivated by the pageantry and grandeur on offer in the trailers. The bombastic remix of “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” had me at hello, and I was eager for a riveting tale with some deep and surreal intrigue waiting around every plot turn. What did I see instead? Whether by executive fiat or by creative flaccidity (perhaps a bit of both), we here bear witness to a Disney movie that’s too “Disney” for its own good.

Like E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story and the famed ballet scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Four Realms begins with a respectable English family gathering for a Christmas Eve party. Unlike those two works, it begins with one of those tritest and unsuitable schticks: the dead mother/wife. Familial brokenness suffered after a grief observed is not an unacceptable grounding for a plot or character arc, but how it is ensconced into this yarn is a travesty left for later discussion.

We find our young heroine Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) in a well-cushioned pillow fort of familiar Disney tropes: The Emotionally Distant Dad, The Perfunctory Moppet Siblings, The Morgan Freeman, etc. Matthew Macfadyen, playing Clara’s father, sure knows how to always seem like he’s on the verge of tears, but it never registers into an actual character arc of any sort. He never actually learns from his plight. He’s just a sad and broken man until he isn’t.

Clara’s older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) seem to have it all together for ones who, like Clara, have lost their mother at such young and tender ages. Can’t have all that potential character-building grief spread too thin, now can we? And yes, Morgan Freeman has essentially become a trope onto himself, only here decked out with more eccentric knobs and doodads. His character of Drosselmeyer operates to stoke and feed Clara’s engineering interests, but he operates solely as a herald and doesn’t stick around for long.

When the festivities of Christmas Eve begin at Drosselmeyer’s estate, the children are sent off to chase colored threads to their gifts, with Clara being given ahead of the rest a special gift left behind from her deceased mother consisting of a strange Fabergé-esque mechanical egg with a missing key. It’s insinuated that Clara will find something of great value within the egg, but that’s also a grievance to address later. With that strange device in hand and following the thread Drosselmeyer assigned to her, Clara eventually stumbles upon…well, it’s not Narnia, but it’s pretty much Narnia.

A few things become abundantly clear here. One thing that was explicit from the beginning is that the vast majority of the film’s budget was poured into the costume designs and set productions. Expect it to pick up nominations in those categories next, dear reader. Sadly, such commitment and sophistication are not found throughout the rest of the production.

Clara is given a number of bits of weighty information when being properly greeted in the Four Realms. The most significant being that her mother was once a beloved ruler there and kept this a secret from her family. It’s suggested that she might have had some hand in the creation of the Four Realms. Try not to dwell on it for too long. It’s bad for you.

The realms in question do seem to be the wholesale manifestation of young girlhood, with each realm being oriented to things pretty and sweet. Each realm has a regent ruler that is just as eccentric and bedazzled in creative affectations as the scenery.  Keira Knightly gives an over-the-top, shooting-for-the-moon performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy ruler of the Realm of Sweets.  The Jack Frost lookalike Shiver (Richard E. Grant) claims regency over the Realm of Frost. The Realm of Flowers is governed by Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) who has been blessed with a well-groomed garden as facial hair.

The fourth land is the Realm of Amusement, where we are told much has gone terribly awry, and the level of dilapidation found there speaks for itself. What I’m compelled to ask at this juncture, Disney, is what exactly you were thinking with the level of frightening imagery you chose to include in this bit? There’s a mass of rats conglomerating amorphously into a giant monstrous looking rat thing that chases down poor Clara through a bough of thick fog-riddled woods. That is something you should leave to likes of John Carpenter. At the center of the woods lies a towering mechanical doll with cracks and dead eyes on its countenance operating as a stand-in for the dreadful ruler Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). The very young and very sensitive viewers would do well to skip out on the movie for that display alone.

There’s also the glaring issue of the whole film amounting to little more than a slapdash cornucopia of borrowed ideas, themes, and motifs from any number of better films. Some such works that were unscrupulously shanghaied include the aforementioned Chronicles of Narnia, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, The Wizard of Oz, and special recognition to Alice in Wonderland (the terrible Tim Burton film from a while ago, not the good stuff from yester-century). If I were to take the reigns on a film with a title such as this, I’d be compelled to most likely draw inspiration and guidance from these same sources, though I would be embarrassed if I had to manage coherence in the narrative while being yoked to another director. You guys should know better than that.

Another thing, Disney: What’s with your kick about surprise villains lately? Look, just because you bought Pixar doesn’t mean you have to rip off the most superficial elements of their success to feel good about yourself. The surprise villains in Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, and Wall-E worked wonderfully, but the trend has diminished the allure and surprise almost entirely. After Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, Coco, and a few others I’m probably missing, I think the jig is up by now. Seriously, enough is enough.

Misty Copeland is the Ballerina Princess in Disney’s THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS.

And by the way, wasn’t this supposed to be a “Nutcracker” movie? What, are we supposed to believe that Jayden Fowora-Knight sauntering about as Captain Phillip in Clara’s shadow is actually a necessary character? That the plot would be noticeably different in his absence? Yes, there are a few divergences from the plot to allow Misty Copeland to show off her mad ballet skills (even in the credits), but those were basically a clear example of Doug Walker’s “Big-lipped Alligator Moment” in professional interpretive dance mode.

The same dismissive remarks could also be made of Clara herself. Some fundamental questions of characterizations were clearly ignored in her conception. She lacks any real drive or personality save for what is simply mentioned and hinted at in passing. Her mechanical ingenuity is certainly charming, but charms do not make for effective character development. They are but accessories to the character. Why precisely is she seen as specially chosen among her mother’s three offspring?

Why was she entrusted to return to The Four Realms and finish her mother’s work there? Why exactly did Drosselmeyer send her off to a wretched world fraught with deadly threats left and right without any reservation? Did he not care for her safety? And for the love of all things holy, what on earth was anyone thinking in the big reveal about what “important thing” was inside that stupid egg that Clara needed so badly? I swear to life, if I have to put up with another hackneyed “believe in yourself” message in a kid’s film, I’m gonna write a very strongly worded review about it in an equally hackneyed fashion. And you certainly won’t like it, Disney. You’ll never read it, I’m sure but mark my words. Your reckoning is nigh. Nigh, I say!

P.S.:

Frozen has a lot more to lose than to gain from a sequel. Please reconsider.

Positives

+ Stellar set production and costumes + Solid sense of atmosphere

Negatives

- Stupid uses of tropes - Too scary at times for really young and sensitive viewers - No meaningful use of the Nutcracker name - Disjointed plot - Virtually nonexistent character development and connections

The Bottom Line

This title sounds like something out of a cinematic universe type of deal. Almost like a threat more so than anything else.

 

5.9

Tyrone Barnes

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