The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is a mainstay in contemporary Christmas seasons. I can’t think of a ballet company that doesn’t perform it, or a person who isn’t somehow aware of the music. It’s part of the fabric of the holiday. However, for me, the story of the ballet has always been an afterthought. It’s not a grand romance or a tragedy for the ages, merely a vehicle to showcase all different styles of dance and exotic motifs. This is why The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a little puzzling. The film regurgitates The Nutcracker, but ignores all the good stuff.
Based loosely on the general structure and many of the characters in the ballet, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms starts with a frequent theme in children’s stories: a dead parent. Clara (Mackenzie Foy) has just lost her mother, and is devastated. She still has her father and two siblings, but she doesn’t feel like one of them. Her sister loves clothes and hair. Her father is reserved and stoic. Her younger brother is, well, just a silly kid. Clara is into mechanical engineering and loves spending time indoors with her gadgets and books. Soon after her mother’s death, the family is called to a Christmas party, and they attend to keep up appearances.
The party is hosted by Clara’s godfather, the eyepatch-wearing Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). In the ballet, he’s the unsettling uncle who gives Clara the nutcracker soldier, but here he’s a kind inventor who give Clara’s brother the nutcracker. Instead, he gifts Clara a path that leads to the magical land where her mother was once queen.
This magical land is quite lovely. In fact, the film’s art design is wholly enchanting. The realms, of which there are four, are each thoroughly stylized and immersive. If you were whisked away from Victorian England, this is exactly the kind of fantastical place you’d dream to find yourself in. Some of the grand landscapes are a bit flat thanks to some fairly obvious CGI, but the costumes, set decorations, and sheer imagination of the details within these worlds are wonderful.
In this land, Clara is treated to a dance performance explaining her mother’s journey to the four realms. This is the only ballet sequence in the film, and it’s beautiful. Misty Copeland is the featured ballerina, and her grace makes you wish that the filmmakers had just produced an entire version of the ballet rather than this half-baked kid’s movie.
Make no mistake, the plot of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is quite weak. Rather than going into too much detail (which doesn’t deserve our attention), it’s sufficient to say that this movie is a pointless retelling of Alice in Wonderland. Clara follows a mouse, not a rabbit. Instead of the Queen of Hearts, we have Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who is misunderstood, but the comparison stands. No amount of faux peril or alarming musical cues can make it feel engaging, because the movie is plain dull.
Were it not for the lush art direction and occasional nods to Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms would be a vapid, money-grabbing release for the Christmas season. Thanks to those details, it’s spared from being a complete waste of talent and imagination, but just barely.