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film review

Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.Laurie Sparham

  • The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
  • Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston
  • Written by Ashleigh Powell
  • Starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley and Morgan Freeman
  • Classification PG; 99 minutes


2 out of 4 stars

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story about a Christmas toy that comes to life has been so eclipsed by the ballet industry that few are familiar with the original text, titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Every December, dance companies across North America recoup large portions of their yearly spending with elaborate productions of the Russian ballet – a ballet that trades most of the German story’s unwieldy plot for dancing and Tchaikovsky. So the big question for the new Disney adaptation of The Nutcracker, sure to ride the wave of the ballet’s seasonal popularity: What’s to be done with the cumbersome story?

Clearly, neither character nor coherence of theme were priorities for the star-studded The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (known for Chocolat and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and Joe Johnston, and written by Ashleigh Powell. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that the plot is fickler and more dizzying than Hoffmann’s original, which revolves around an adolescent girl’s magical journey to a toy-ruled world, where she involves herself in its bizarre feuds and begins a fledgling romance with a young prince. The Disney plot is so jumbled that the film might be best summarized as a pageant of CGI landscapes and extravagant clothing – in a sense the cinematic version of the sets and costumes that go with the ballet, minus all the stunning choreography.

One of the big plot-inventions of the film is that Clara Stahlbaum – played by Mackenzie Foy of Twilight fame – is recently bereaved. For Christmas, her deceased mom has left her an ornamental silver egg that requires a key to unlock it. With the help of her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman in a throwaway role), Clara leaves her London family’s Christmas ball by following a thread into a wintry world where she spots a mouse carrying the key. She chases the mouse, meets a handsome young guard named Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and crosses over into the world of the Four Realms where, she learns, her mother was once queen.

Clara (Mackenzie Foy) and Phillip (Jayden Fowara-Knight) visit the Fourth Realm.Laurie Sparham

In this fantastical setting that feels somewhere between Wonderland and Narnia, it’s hard to keep track of who’s good and who’s bad and what their apparently longstanding feuds consist of. The Mouse King, whose body is made from a heap of individual mice that can assemble and disband at will (an impressive CGI effect), goes from posing a serious threat to Clara’s well-being to being a reliable source of help. Without revealing too much about the plot’s twists, Keira Knightley’s benevolent Sugar Plum Fairy and Helen Mirren’s wicked Mother Ginger also switch allegiances on a dime. Like Freeman’s Drosselmeyer, Mirren’s performance as an aging circus master is little more than a forgettable cameo. Knightley’s treacly-voiced fairy, sugar-and-spice one minute then consumed by megalomania the next, is about as strange as her edible purple hair.

It would be remiss not to mention some of the more impressive CGI effects. The Land of Sweets will bring to mind your wildest childhood fantasy of Candy Land, the Kingdom of the Realms looks like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow with twice the building budget, and a giant wooden effigy of Mother Ginger functions as her circus camp, her skirt its vast, candy-striped tent. The film’s opening gives us a beautiful bird’s-eye view of Big Ben and Westminster at Christmastime, while Tchaikovsky’s famous overture crescendos in the background.

There’s a further nod to the ballet in the casting of (arguably) the world’s most famous ballerina. American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland might not be given much in the way of interesting choreography, but she still makes a welcome cameo, performing in a long tutu for Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of Sweets.

A promising theme that doesn’t get enough development is the female nexus of power in this adaptation. It seems that Clara’s mom was something of an accomplished inventor, and her daughter has inherited her mathematical mind. As the canon of Disney princesses goes, this new Clara is a good one, fearless, intellectual and more interested in Newton’s laws of motion than romantic love. There’s also a suggestion in the film that “mothering” is principally about empowering. Since the key coordinates of the movie’s conflict are all women, and two have maternity tied into their identities (Clara’s mother and Mother Ginger) there’s potential here for a distinctly female examination of leadership, power and war. If only it were further explored.

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