The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) Review

A HOLLOW AND SUGAR-COATED

ENDEAVOR


 

It is a well-known fact that Disney has taken up the mantle of translating its legendary / timeless animated feature films into live-action remakes. While this staging might have had a sort of rocky start (i.e. 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent), the “house of mouse” has mostly refined their cinematic tastes and nuances for high quality live-action movies along these lines, entertaining both critics and moviegoers with live-action films like 2015’s Cinderella, 2016’s The Jungle Book, and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. However, while Disney continues this “live-action” trend of reimaging its animated tales (with plenty more planned on the horizon), the studio has also continued to provide live-action non-animated Disney movies to its catalogue, including 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, 2014’s Into the Woods, and 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time. Now, Walt Disney Studios and directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston embark upon the reimagined tale of the classic Nutcracker story with the movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Does this movie find its “magic” in its enchanted worlds or is it a visual hodgepodge mess of better similar endeavors?

THE STORY


Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is the middle child of an aristocratic family in the Victorian era of London, England. However, Clara feels out of place in her family, less concerned with fashion like her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber), but not as filled with childish ways like her young brother Fritz (Tom Sweet). And Clara continuously butts head with her father, Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfayden), over how both of them are dealing with the death of Clara’s mother, Marie (Anna Madeley). On Christmas Eve, while attending an annual holiday at party at the home of her godfather, the inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), Clara follows a path laid out by both of her mother and Drosselmyer that leads her to a strange and mysterious parallel world called the Four Realms. Once there, Clare meets a young Nutcracker solider named Captain Phillip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight), learning that her mother was once the queen of the land, which makes Clara a princess. Phillip takes Clara to the palace at the center realms, where she meets regents of the three of the realms: Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the regent of the Realm of Flowers; Shiver (Richard E. Grant), the regent of the Realm of Snowflakes; and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), the regent of the Realm of Sweets. Clara also learned the regent of the fourth realm, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) has been banished for started a war among the realms. However, as Clara attempts to save the world, with Phillip by her side, she learns that not everything is as it appears, digging deeper into the land her mother once ruled and to restore peace amongst the Four Realms.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Being a fan of all things Disney, I have personally enjoyed majority of their recent endeavors of translating their classic animated features into live-action movies. Some are better than others (I think Maleficent was the worst), but I believe that the studio has sort of found a “winning formula” (much like how Marvel found it with the MCU blockbuster films) with their more recent live-action remakes providing a lot of cinematic entertainment and joyous fun to the proceedings. Personally, I love Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast (more of the latter than the former), but both are still pretty good. Like I said above, while Disney is planning to release more live-action remakes from the animated catalogue (including Aladdin, The Lion King, and Dumbo), the studio has still maintained its foot hole in developing several non-Disney animated remakes for the live-action representation. Of course, I loved Disney’s releases of The Chronicles of Narnia (i.e. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian) as well as Into the Woods (love the cast in that movie), but some of their other ones have failed, with A Wrinkle in Time being the latest one in that category.

This brings me back to talking about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, the latest cinematic live-action venture from Disney. I do remember vaguely hearing about Disney making a Nutcracker movie a year or two ago, with names like Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren being attached to the project. This, of course, peaked my interest to see this movie as I do like both actresses, especially Mirren. I do remember seeing the first movie trailer for the movie all the way back in 2017 (towards the end of the year) and found it to be quite enchanting and somewhat reminiscent of Disney’s Into the Woods (i.e. a dark telling of classic tale, color palpate vaguely muted, etc.). Thus, I was quite interested in seeing The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but had to wait almost entire length of 2018 for the film to come out, with one or two more movie trailer being released throughout the year. Now, I finally had the chance to see this movie and to see if Disney, who’s had more successful movies (well, minus A Wrinkle in Time). So, what did think of the movie? Well, to be honest, it didn’t live up to the hype. While the movie has several positives, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ends up being more of an underwhelming big budgeted endeavor from Disney that’s most likely not destined to become a holiday classic. It wasn’t as terribly bad as A Wrinkle in Time, but the movie ends up being more of disappointment than a fantastic endeavor.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is directed by Lasse Hallstrom, whose previous directional works includes such films like The One Hundred Foot Journey, An Unfinished Life, and Dear John. Additionally, while Hallstrom handled the principal photography of the feature, director Joe Johnston, whose previous directorial works include October Sky, Jumanji, and Captain America: The First Avenger, acts as co-director for the film, stepping into the role to hand in overseeing a month-long stint of reshoots (as Hallstrom became unavailable, but did return to oversee post production. While some might be wary of the different clash of ideas of two directors for a single film, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t show any indication of that sign, with the movie producing a cohesive and straightforward story for the narrative to follow. In case you don’t know, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is based on the classic Nutcracker tale (along with its ballet iteration) of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A Hoffman. Thus, Hallstrom (and by proximity Johnson) craft a movie that honors the classic tale, but adds an entirely new twist the known story of Clara and many of the inhabitants of the mystical Four Realms. This also means the tale gets a sort of update to some of the material, including Clara being more of an inventor / creative minds as well as Clara’s mother creating the Four Realms. Of course, while the movie has that “magical” fantasy quality, Hallstrom and his team also utilized a sort of steampunk nuances that also speaks to a more modern generation. Interestingly, Hallstrom / Johnston also honor the Nutcracker ballet by dedicating a sequence of a ballet performance (with current famed ballerina Misty Copeland performing in the scene) as well as nod reference to Disney’s 1940 Fantasia.

The film’s script, which is handled by Ashleigh Powell, has a heavy dose of the classic of a young hero venturing into a magical land scenario throughout the movie, which does make for a compelling storytelling, especially when aimed at its target audience of young adolescents. It’s a well-proven narrative journey to focus on and one that makes for a great cinematic adventure to put on the silver screen, making Powell’s tale of Clara destined to save the Four Realms intriguing, while Hallstrom and Johnson translate the script into something “visual” stunning on-screen. However, Powell’s script does have a “double edge” sword type of affect, but more on that below.

Speaking of visually stunning, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’s greatest strength is in its technical filmmaking presentation. What stands out most is the film’s visual aesthetics, with mostly the film’s costume elaborate and incredibly detailed designs by Jenny Beavan as well as the entire make-up team for bringing a magical fantasy costume attire for many of the characters that dwell within the Four Realms. Another visual aspect that works in the movie is the film’s entire visual effects department, which brings the Four Realms’s fantasy landscape to life as well as cinematographer Linus Sandgren for some creative camera angles and lightning effects to add a more “magical” appeal (in a cinematic way) to the feature. And the movie certainly does. Other areas that are noteworthy include production designs by Guy Hendrix Dyas, set decorations by Lisa Chugg, and film editing by Stuart Levy are rather good and help strengthen the movie’s visual look and appeal. Lastly, the film’s musical score, which is composed by James Newton Howard, is great, creating beautiful melodies that sure do capture the spirit of the movie’s fantasy-esque themes. Plus, Howard’s score also incorporates a lot of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet music into the movie, which is fantastic to hear throughout. The only disappointment from the score (a very minor one) is that you don’t hear “the Russian Dance” song in the movie (I love that song from the ballet.

Unfortunately, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms fails to be the winning feature film from Disney that it was meant to be; finding the movie stumbled upon several crucial areas that hinder from being a smash hit. The most notable one that I noticed in the movie (and I think that many will find) is how much the film is incredibly rushed. With a runtime of being only 99 minutes long, the movie has the same runtime of a standard animated feature, so the film is very streamlined and moves at a brisk pace from one scene / plot point to the next. The downside? Well, the movie simply lacks substance and missed a lot (and I do mean a lot) of opportunities to fully explore the movie’s narrative. Basically, the film’s story (of which is presented) only gives us (the viewers) a somewhat fragmented take on the Four Realms. This is most prevalent in talking about two of the Four Realms (The Land of Snowflakes and the Land of Flowers) and their respective regent rulers, who are reduced to very minor roles and have very little impact on the movie’s narrative (as a whole). Heck, we only see those two particular realms in spurts (mostly in one montage sequence) and does really involve those realms (or its regents) into the main story, which makes it disappointing since the movie is supposed to talk about the Four Realms (hence the title “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”).

There is also the actual machination of the villainy in the movie that seems a bit wonky. What do I mean? Well, there is a plot to follow and there is a bad guy villain in the film, but The Nutcracker and the Four Realms lacks a strong villain antagonist motivate and reasoning. Yes, there is a twist that comes into the movie, which is suppose to be a big reveal, but it seems to contrive and underwhelming, with little to no “meaty” reason beyond what’s presented. In conjunction with that idea, the movie’s third act seems very rushed (and do mean that) as the final confrontation sequence is very “blink and you miss it” type that feels lackluster and underwhelming, especially for a big budgeted CGI visual type feature.

Another problem, which coexist with this ongoing of the film throughout, is the fact that the character stance of Clara (the movie’s main protagonist) seems too derivate as well as her film’s journey. From start to finish, the movie’s main narrative thread borrows heavily from other similar Disney tales of a young hero who travels to magical world like 2007’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. While it’s not a problem to draw inspiration from those narrative, there is a problem when it’s almost a carbon copy, especially if you compare Clara Stahlbaum to Alice Kingsleigh’s from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. There’s a problem at the beginning of the movie, the character goes to a magical land where she encounters many characters and an evil that threatens the land (which turns to be tied to the character’s personal problem), and then returns to the normal world with a renewed sense of confidence to overcome the onset problem from the beginning. If it sounds familiar, then it is as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t really try to reinvent the character persona for Clara, making her mostly a cliché of sorts and ultimately predictably bland.

Again, all of this derivates from the Powell’s script and Hallstrom / Johnson’s overall direction for the film, which makes it less-than desirable. In truth, I was expecting a lot more from this movie and would’ve liked to seeing The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’s narrative produce a different story. Yes, it could’ve used that “young hero comes to a magical world to save it” aspect, but even I could’ve come up with a better (and more epic / wholesome) narrative for a feature like this. All in all, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms just ends up being a disappointment because it doesn’t examine all that it wants to encompass and the identity of its unique world and the denizens therein.

The cast in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is (collectively) a solid, with many of them being recognizable from previous projects. While most (if not all) have credible acting talents, which are utilized in the movie, most are thinly-written and lack a proper cinematic well-rounded build for each respective character. In the spotlight for majority of the film, actress Mackenzie Foy plays the story’s main protagonist character of Clara Stahlbaum. Foy, known for her roles in Interstellar, The Little Prince, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II, definitely has the right amount of the “spunk” for Clara, making her to be creative and clever as well as being brave in the face of challenging problems, especially when trying to save the Four Realms. Personally, I thought she was a good fit for Clara. The downside, however, is that her character itself is pretty generic. Much like what mentioned above, the film doesn’t allow much “breathing room” for these characters to grow and this is most notable in the character of Clara. Without that much creative innovation to her, Clara ends up being the stereotypical cliché of a young adolescent hero that comes to a mystical world in order to save it as well as learn a value lesion along the way. Again, if that doesn’t sound like Alice from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, then your watching a completely different from the actual Nutcracker and the Four Realms movie. Thus, Foy is fine in the role as Clara, but lacks character substance in the lead role for the feature.

Behind Foy is actor Jayden Fowora-Knight (Ready Player One) who plays the role of the Nutcracker soldier Captain Phillip Hoffman. Like Foy’s Clara, Fowora-Knight’s acting ability is solid and is perfectly fine in the role of Phillip. However, what’s most surprising in this character is that he’s not as important to the story as one might think, which is quite strange. What do I mean? Well, I was expecting the character of Phillip (i.e. the Nutcracker) to have a pivotal role, especially since the movie takes inspiration from the famous Nutcracker story / ballet. In the end, despite Fowora-Knight’s talents in the role, the character of Captain Phillip ends up being a just a sidekick character along Clara’s journey and nothing more. Plus, while I like both in their roles, I just couldn’t see Foy and Fowora-Knight in any type companionship, which makes them less interesting when together (think more of a platonic one than a romantic one).

Of the regents of the Four Realms, the character of Sugar Plum (the Regent of the Land of Sweets) shines the biggest and brightest and who is played by actress Keira Knightley. Known for her roles in Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice, and Atonement, Knightley seems to be having fun as Sugar Plum, providing a sickly sweet, breathy sounding voice in her performance. Plus, her costume attire for Sugar Plum is actually quite creative (i.e. fluttering / elaborate dresses and cotton candy pink hair). In terms of depth, there’s not much to the character (as a whole), but of the four regent rulers, she stands out the most due to her screen-time, which she shares a lot with Foy’s Clara.

While the character of Sugar Plum shines, the character of Mother Ginger is underwhelming. Played by famed actress Helen Mirren, known for her roles in The Queen, Gosford Park, and The Hundred Foot Journey, Mother Ginger is the regent ruler of the now banished Fourth Realm (which dares not speaks its name). Mirren is up to the task for the role of Mother Ginger and she surely does semi-succeed in that regard, but the character isn’t exactly a meaty role for such a famed actress, despite the film’s narrative setup her to be one. The problem (like problems in this movie) is the simple fact that there’s not much spent making Mother Ginger a well-rounded character. In the end, Mirren’s Mother Ginger is woefully underdeveloped and isn’t a particular memorable role, leaving much for the skilled actress to cultivate a thinly-sketched character into something. Personally, I love Mirren and it was disappointing that she didn’t get much to do with her character and really make it her own.

The other two regents of the Four Realms, with actor Eugenio Derbez (How to be a Latin Lover and Overboard) playing Hawthorne (the Regent of the Land of Flowers) and actor Richard E. Grant (Gosford Park and Can You Ever Forgive Me?) playing Shiver (the Regent of the Land of Snowflakes), are almost nonexistent in the movie. Much like how the movie doesn’t focus on the Lands of Flower and Snowflakes, the same can be said about those two regent rulers, finding the pair to be merely “window dressing” to frame the existence of the Four Realms (in general). The acting talents by both Derbez and Grant are good and definitely look the part of two of the rulers of the Four Realms (again, the costume and make-up designs are quite good), but both Hawthorne and Shiver (as characters) are incredibly bland and don’t really leave much of an impact on the movie, which is disappointing as I would’ve liked to seeing more of them incorporated into the main narrative of Clara’s journey.

The rest of the cast, including actress Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and actor Tom Sweet (Ashes in the Snow and Where Hands Touch) as Clara’s siblings (Louise and Fritz Stahlbaum) and actors Jack Whitehall (Fresh Meat and Bad Education) and Omid Djalili (The Mummy and Whoopi) as two bumbling soldiers Harlequin and Cavalier, act as more minor supporting roles in the movie. I didn’t expect depth within these particular characters, so their presence in the movie (whenever on-screen) works as humor-based sequences or narrative structure continuity.

FINAL THOUGHTS


In search of key to unlock a gift from her late mother, Clara stumbles into a magical land and attempts to save the land from evil in the movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Director Lasse Hallstrom (and Joe Johnston) latest film see the classic story of the Nutcracker and translates that narrative into a cinematic fantasy adventure (under the Disney banner). While the film’s visual aesthetics are strong and the narrative has that ode to the classic hero journey tale that’s well known by all, but the movie never fully becomes it own identity and, with its hurried runtime, barebones story, lackluster third act, thinly written characters, partly wasted cast members, and just lacking all around substance, becomes more derivate than less exciting. To me, the movie was okay-ish, but I was mostly disappointed with it, especially since I was looking forward to seeing it. Some moments were good (and worked), but I felt that movie could’ve been so much better if it had “more” to its skimpy (almost simplified) conventional narrative. Thus, I would say that my recommendation for this movie would be a “skip it” as the movie ends up being a paint-by numbers endeavor with very little magical (or originality) to story being told. In the end, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms merely ends up being a sugar-coated cinematic story that colorful in its visual style, but lacks a substantial substance in its tale of a young girl that ventures into a magical land; creating a very rushed and almost disappointing fantasy adventure of what could’ve been something quite magical.

2.7 of 5 (Skip It)

 

Released On: November 2nd, 2018
Reviewed On: November 10th, 2018

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms  is 99 minutes long and is rated PG for some mild peril

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