On the Christmas after her mother has died, Clara (Mackenzie Foy) receives one final gift: a locked egg-shaped box. The hunt for the key takes her on an unexpected journey to a world of snow, sweets, and flowers, as well as a struggle to save that world from the elusive and threatening Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren).
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a 2018 fantasy film directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, with the latter overseeing reshoots when the former was unavailable. Produced by Walt Disney Studios it failed to attract audiences and critics and wound up losing the studio almost US$70 million, which is a deep shame for a high budget Disney production that was not a superhero film, Star Wars sequel, or cartoon adaptation. It takes inspiration from E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story and Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s famous ballet to create a story that is both a sequel to both works and a relatively contained children’s narrative all of its own.
To its credit the film has a beautiful sense of design, based a strong sense of colour and a charming 19th century aesthetic. While there is a heavy use of computer-generated effects, there is also a larger-than-typical proportion of physical sets and props. Some of the imagery – Mother Ginger’s giant mechanical tent, and the animated hordes of mice – are particularly well composed and staged. The film’s Victorian opening perhaps suffers from feeling a little too artificial not enough of a contrast to the titular four realms in which Clara soon finds herself, but ultimately – and given the film’s young target audience – is not a great disappointment.
The film has many engaging performances, all pitched to the fantastical and slightly exaggerated content. Mackenzie Foy is a charming and appealing lead as Clara. Keira Knightly channels Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II in her performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and it’s a clever touchstone for her character. As Mother Ginger, Helen Mirren is excellent but woefully under-used. In smaller supporting roles, Matthew McFadyen and Morgan Freeman make solid contributions. It is all geared towards making a charming confection for a Christmas-time audience.
That I have yet to mention the screenplay is likely an obvious omission. The basic concept – to exploit the elements of The Nutcracker in a new fantasy feature – is a smart one, and rich with potential dividends. The story structure has its origins in popular children’s fantasies like Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, : a smart young woman plucked out of her own world and into a surreal environment of whimsy and strangeness. Films such as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) have demonstrated that such a structure can be applied successfully to cinema. Despite the promise, something has clearly gone wrong in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ development. The production design, the performances, the costuming, and James Newton Howard’s music riffs on Tchaikovsky’s ballet score all work wonderfully in unison – but they all work in service of a structurally messy and inconsistent screenplay. Streamlined and simplified, and the script could have worked wonderfully. In its finished state it instead feels emotionally cold and packed with stereotype, and somewhat confused about its structure. It works in places, but never beyond fits and starts.
The films also squanders the opportunity of casting noted ballerina Misty Copeland for an extended ballet sequence, also starring Sergei Polunin and with Liam Scarlet choreography, and then shoots it in an appalling fashion. More often than not, dancers are captured from the waist up and from tracking shots. The editing is inappropriately rapid, obscuring the actual choreography and rendering the casting of Copeland and her co-stars pointless. It could be anybody for all of the ballet the viewer gets to see. A brief sequence avoids some of these problems during the closing credits, but that simply feels like a case of ‘too little, too late’.
It seems a no-brainer, given The Nutcracker‘s dominance as a ballet, that a derivative film would make more use of ballet dancing in the film. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is already firmly geared towards an audience of young girls, and it is a shame Walt Disney Studios did not exploit that market by including much more ballet in the film. It could have formed the basis of it. It could have used ballet performances and themes to make the film stand out from similar children’s fantasies. Instead it finishes up just a little too mediocre and a little too generic to find its audience.
An audience for this film will exist: it has a long-term streaming favourite written all over it. It simply does not have the quality elements properly lined up to hit the mainstream. It was made with good intentions, and certainly Disney should be encouraged to keep trying non-franchise films among their bigger hits. The Nutcracker and Four Realms is definitely enjoyable to an extent, but it messes up too much to properly impress.