I don’t mind saying, that sometimes I review films knowing I’m not in the film’s desired target audience. Yes, those films could be assigned to a more appropriate reviewer, but at the same time, films are films. Films tell stories that should have a broad appeal and utilize essential storytelling tools that speak to everyone. It’s a known fact that the Walt Disney Studios has mastered the art of storytelling and its ability to reach everyone…most of the time.
So along comes, Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and right off the bat I know I’m not in the target audience. Fortunately, I have a tween daughter, who unfortunately was not interested in seeing the film either. I took my budding film reviewing kid and we decided to give The Nutcracker a fair chance and in doing so teach my kid the concept of optimism. “Kid, you never know until you see it,” I mused.
By the end of the film, one of the two of us loved this movie and wanted to see it again. One guess…yes, my tween daughter loved the film. Yes, she wants to see it again…in 3D. Yes, Disney, you made a fan of one member of your target audience. But my kid is not a professional reviewer, I am. So now It’s my turn.
From Cider House Rules director Lasse Halstrom (who handled the initial directorial duties) and the director of The Rocketeer and Captain America: First Avenger Joe Johnston (who directed the reshoots), comes the Christmas story of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Our tale follows a young girl with a particular knack for mechanical engineering, Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) and her first Christmas after the passing of her mother. Still grieving, Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) gives each of his children an early Christmas gift at their mother’s request. Clara receives a beautiful egg-shaped box, but without the key that would it. Where’s the key? And what’s with the mysterious note she received about the contents “inside” the egg.
“…takes Clara on a journey to infiltrate Mother Ginger’s domain to steal back the missing key, open the egg, and restart some kind of mechanical contraption…”
On Christmas Day, the Stahlbaum family attends a fancy London party. Clara’s father warns her not to run off and be ready for a father/daughter dance. Like all girls do in stories involving conflicts with parents, she does the exact opposite. Slipping away to the top floor, Clara seeks her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) to ask him about the egg and the key’s location. Like all adults when needing to look profound, answers Clara’s request with a vague puzzle.
As the party progresses, it is announced that all of the children are to receive gifts from the party’s hosts. Each gift can be found in a sort of scavenger hunt (sort of). In Clara’s case, her hunt leads her through a mysterious tunnel ending in the magical land of the Four Realms. Too bad she didn’t pick up a coat on the way to this wintery land.
Upon arrival, Clara meets a Nutcracker Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who guards the entrance that Clara passed through. It is here that Clara finds the key. Before she can grab it, a cute little mouse gets to it first. Clara and Phillip chase the mouse deeper into the forest and ends up just outside a strange and ominous circus tent. Afraid, Phillips takes Clara to the main castle overlooking the four realms.
Through a little exposition and a Misty Copeland ballet performance, Clara learns that her mother was the queen of the Four Realms. When she left to start a family in the real world, division among the realms occurred as one realm broke off, led by its regent Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). The remaining regents Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), Shiver (Richard E. Grant), and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) stayed to manage what’s left of the kingdom.
The rest of the film takes Clara on a journey to infiltrate Mother Ginger’s domain to steal back the missing key, open the egg, and restart some kind of mechanical contraption that will help build an army of toy soldiers to protect the kingdom from Mother Ginger.
Throughout the film, we are treated to various movements from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, serving as transitions from world-to-world and scene-to-scene. Also, portions of The Nutcracker Ballet are performed by Misty Copeland as a way to tell the story of the Four Realms. This all clearly becomes an homage to Disney’s Fantastia.
“…never a good sign when you have to change directors mid-stream…”
Does Clara have the strength and confidence to defeat the Jabberwocky, I mean Mother Ginger; restore peace to the Four Realms; and rule as its queen? All will be revealed.
The best part of the film is Mackenzie Foy. She single-handedly holds this story together. Her veteran supporting casts provide gravitas to the film and little else. It is Foy’s performance and presence that makes you want to stay to the end. She is the girl thrust into leadership with the vulnerabilities of her young age and with youthful curiosity. She’s not a child pretending to be an adult, but a child forced to act like one.
The primary problem with Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is that I really didn’t care about what was happening. Sure blame it on the fact, I’m not the target audience, but kids aren’t going to drive themselves to the theater. Nothing about the Four Realms makes me want to visit it or look forward to further adventures. We call this world building. In Narnia, Middle Earth, even Wonderland, I got a feel of those kingdoms and its importance to the narrative. I still don’t understand why the Four Realms is important.
Like Alice in Wonderland, this fantasy land is filled with strange and wacky characters. The film runs at 99 minutes and is forced to focus on the film and its story rightfully on Clara and her journey. Because of the short run time, the fantastical characters are not given a proper introduction nor enough time to say why they are essential to the story. This is especially true of Mother Ginger, who gets a good amount of screen time, just not enough.
It’s never a good sign when you have to change directors mid-stream and produce a significant amount of reshoots. It almost always indicates story problems and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has some serious problem that couldn’t be fixed even by Joe Johnston
One note. The ballet featuring Misty Copeland is beautiful. This coming from a guy, who knows nothing of ballet. It’s insertion in between the second and third act never felt forced or cheesy. It is a beautiful performance and finishes itself during the end credit.
Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) Directed by Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston. Written by Ashleigh Powell. Starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Misty Copeland.
5 out of 10 stars