The adaptations of E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King are as numerous as they are diverse. Even more famous than the original short story is the adapted ballet with musical compositions by Tchaikovsky, under the more simple re-titling of, “The Nutcracker.” Both the original short story and the ballet have naturally lent themselves to plenty of movie adaptations as well, some made for television, some made for the big screen, some in animation, and some in live-action. There have even been Nutcracker-themed specials for Barbie and Tom & Jerry to boot, cementing this story as one of the most recognized and beloved among classic Christmas tales.
Thus, it was only a matter of time before colossal family media juggernaut, Disney tried their hands at a modern Nutcracker adaptation. This takes the form of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a big screen blockbuster movie that purports to take especially heavy inspiration from the original short story, while injecting all-new plot elements that also manage to tie in with the subsequent ballet. If this sounds very ambitious, it certainly is! Disney has made a modern habit of trying to subvert expectations with classic stories however, providing new 21st Century spins on even their own animated classics, so it’s certainly not above the studio to try and make their mark with The Nutcracker in a big way!
They certainly do that as well, but for many of the wrong reasons. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms may be ambitious in scope, but its final product is a complete mess. This movie may still be a noticeable improvement over the disastrous previous cinematic adaptation of this story, The Nutcracker in 3D (or The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, if you’re going by the home viewing release), but that can’t save the production from quickly collapsing under its own weight. What we ultimately get with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is another tonally confused, disappointingly soulless Holiday offering that represents the worst-case scenario with modern Disney blockbusters. There are moments of fun, and at least the decent performances and strong visuals prevent the movie from being a complete waste of time, but if Disney was hoping to groom a new Christmas franchise with this, then they definitely failed in that effort.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms stars Mackenzie Foy as Clara, a young girl that has recently lost her mother, Marie, and is struggling with her seemingly cold father and seemingly immature brother. After reuniting with her tinkerer godfather, Drosselmeyer however, played by Morgan Freeman, Clara eventually finds her way into the fantastical ‘Realms’, which are divided into four kingdoms, now facing conquest at the hands of Mother Ginger. Yes, not the mice, the usual villains from the short story and the ballet. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms instead sets up Mother Ginger as the villain, with Mother Ginger being one of the key personalities from Act II of the ballet, who is played here by Helen Mirren, in one of the most confused roles that she’s played in a while, and that’s saying something after Mirren was a criminal matriarch in Universal’s The Fate of the Furious!
Mirren isn’t the only big star that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms portrays in a confusing manner too. Keira Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy is another key personality from the ballet that constantly wavers between child-like and more adult in nature, with Knightley doing the best she can under what appears to be fairly inconsistent direction. The whole ‘Four Realms’ setup feels like a way to tie together the personalities of the short story and the ballet into one magical fantasy land, which is a fair enough idea, but it just never feels like the characters are given a chance to breathe or develop real traits to make themselves endearing and memorable to the audience. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms instead feels like it’s rushing through all of its key story developments as quickly as possible, with only Foy’s Clara and the Nutcracker, or, “Phillip” as he’s called here, played by complete newcomer, Jayden Fowora-Knight, getting anything resembling a real traceable personality.
Clara’s family, including Drosselmeyer, barely end up playing any real part in the movie once Clara finds her way to the Realms, and that doesn’t really take too long for her to do. If there’s an especially major character casualty in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms however, it’s the mice, who are completely shoved into the background in this movie, despite being the principal antagonists of both the short story and at least the first act of the ballet. The mice are made into complete and total plot devices that serve as either a forced way to move a conflict along, or a non-sensical fix to Clara’s problems, as the script demands. The Mouse King has also been re-envisioned as a regular, normal-sized mouse that simply commands and re-shapes hordes of other regular mice, which becomes a bit of a head-scratcher, when you consider that this movie is trying to tie itself into the short story and the ballet in some capacity, where the Mouse King was definitely not that! This is a prime example of a Disney movie both overthinking its characters while also somehow under-developing them. You don’t get a good sense of who anyone is or why anyone is doing what they do, and that makes it very hard to get invested in a movie that’s supposed to be this large, sweeping fantasy blockbuster.
As confused as the character work can often be in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, that pales in comparison to just how little sense the plot ultimately makes! On top of being rushed and not really allowing audiences to truly understand or immerse themselves in this fantasy world, which is set up to essentially be a third-rate knock-off of Narnia, the fundamental premise of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms also feels like a conundrum with no answer, especially when you start thinking about how it tries to tie itself into the original Nutcracker story. Like I said, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms wants to unite the separate story devices of the short story and the ballet into a common continuity, making liberal references to the exploits of Clara’s mother, who happens to be named, “Marie”, the name of the protagonist from the short story, who had a doll named, “Clara.” Yes, while it’s not explicitly spelled out, this essentially means that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is presenting itself as a sequel to E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story, which ended with Marie being crowned queen of the fantasy world, thus making Clara a princess of the Realms.
Of course, if you’re not familiar with the short story, you’ll have no idea why Clara is considered to be a princess of the Realms, and even if you are familiar with it, you’ll probably be confused as to how an adaptation of a work, the ballet, is somehow being simultaneously placed into continuity with the original work it adapted, the short story. The presence of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mother Ginger retroactively adds lore from the ballet into the short story, but it does so in such a sloppy, ill-explained fashion that you’ll ultimately have no idea how the original story with Marie was supposed to have properly played out in this canon. Muddying the waters further is that there’s now two other kingdoms relating to snow and flowers, which serve no purpose at all in the storyline (beyond probable sequel bait), and merely hint at a larger world and set of politics that the movie never manages to fully explore. You could make the argument that the world doesn’t make sense because it’s ambiguously based on a child’s imagination, but this movie acts as if the Realms are completely real, and have actual pressing stakes for actual living people. This follows with this film adaptation’s ambitions because, if the whole thing is truly taking place in Clara’s mind, then there’s no effective reason to really worry about Clara or the other characters, since it would all make-believe.
Perhaps the biggest and most botched ‘liberty’ taken with the story however is a massive twist in the third act that completely shifts the focus on the exact nature of the threat to the Realms, which many viewers will probably anticipate to some degree, though not the way the movie has it pan out. Even if you can put together that the story is probably not entirely what it seems, the true threat behind everything feels inexplicable, creating a ridiculous climax that, to be honest, somewhat spits on the legacy of the ballet most of all! This is the biggest influence of modern Disney, creating a pointless twist for the sake of a pointless twist, to the point where the story just becomes very muddled and confusing. The motivations of the characters never truly land, and that’s especially true once we get to the big battle for the Realms in the climax, which serves as a loose collection of semi-harrowing set pieces that operate as if they’re the final level of a Nintendo Switch game, a very mediocre Nintendo Switch game! As much as this world and its plight wants so badly to echo Narnia, it ends up instead echoing Underland, only now the logic gaps are even more distracting and detrimental!
Another thing that’s probably not helping the mixed messages and tone in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the fact that it was actually directed by two people, which would have been fine if this was an animated movie, but it’s a live-action movie, so this is just the latest thing about the production that seems to muddle the final product. The two directors are Lasse Halstrom, a Swedish director who has actually helmed some great movies, like 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and 2000’s Chocolat, and Joe Johnston, a mercenary blockbuster director who is perhaps best known for directing Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger, as well as Universal’s Jurassic Park III and semi-recent Benicio Del Toro-starring remake of The Wolfman. Halstrom was in charge of most of production, but was unavailable during reshoots, so Disney hired Johnston to step in and finish the movie, despite Halstrom at least being able to return for post-production effects work.
Johnston’s reshoots may explain why some of the character direction feels rather inconsistent, especially by the third act. At a glance, Johnston’s reshoots seem to have been put in place as an effort to both make the movie more exciting, and appeal a bit more to adults. If that was the intention though, it just flies in the face of the rest of the movie, which feels focus-tested to death. Even by the standards of Disney, everything in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels very glossy and consequence-free. The target audience of this movie is clearly children, who are more likely to forgive the completely non-sensical storyline and superficial fantasy world, but the meager effort to appeal to adults with certain off-hand jokes and performance subtleties merely draws attention to how much the rest of the movie is toothless and completely lacking in impact. It’s a fair enough distraction, but The Nutcracker and the Four Realms never manages to have one iota of emotional heft, and that’s quite disappointing, considering the many emotions at play in both the short story, and the ballet that it inspired.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms certainly tries to go all out with the soundtrack, enlisting James Newton Howard for the Herculean task of trying to modernize the timeless Nutcracker music compositions by Tchaikovsky. To Howard’s credit as well, the soundtrack is certainly one of the better elements of the movie, even if a lot of that comes down to just how amazing Tchaikovsky’s original music from the ballet was. It’s borrowed whimsy, but the whimsy still works. Purists of the ballet meanwhile will likely have mixed feelings about the remixes of old Tchaikovsky favourites, in an effort to make them a bit more foreboding or engaging in this movie, depending on what the scene calls for. At best though, this is the soundtrack trying to do the heavy lifting when the movie fails to be truly exciting or tense, and at worst, these remixes are just an intrusive effort to try and ‘fix’ what is otherwise pretty damn flawless.
The rest of the audio work is very delicate in many cases, though there are a few exceptions. It’s difficult to talk about the handful of times that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms pulls its audio punches a little less, since that would definitely constitute spoilers, but most of the movie is pretty dream-like and soft with its audio stylings. Any exceptions come from the handful of threats to Clara, which are pretty fairly spaced out once she gets to the Realms, and don’t truly exist at all outside of them. Obviously, the music takes center stage here, since this story is being loosely inspired by a ballet, and I doubt that will surprise anyone. The small chunks of action scenes sometimes carry at least a bit of thrills, no doubt added in re-shoots and post-production, but The Nutcracker and the Four Realms never manages to feel truly dangerous, even if that’s likely by design.
For all of its many faults, I will at least say that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is very pretty to look at. This should definitely come as no surprise, since any Disney blockbuster worth its salt is often at least visually arresting, if nothing else, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms does at least try to contribute a good amount of colourful imagination to its world. Some set pieces are definitely better than others, mind you, especially since the Realms do often feel like a video game backdrop, whenever they’re not just blatantly ripping off Narnia. The costumes and makeup are definitely the highlight of the visuals, and I will say that there is a commendable emphasis on practical effects in this movie, with only a handful of instances relying more on CGI, like any appearances from the mice for example. There is a lot of effort put into realizing the world of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in a visual medium, but that makes it all the more frustrating that the actual narrative of this world is never developed beyond the surface level.
I also saw The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in 3D, and to the movie’s credit, the 3D presentation is pretty decent. It adds a noticeable degree of heightened atmosphere, and makes the sets feel a little more sprawling and immersive. There isn’t too much done in terms of action scenes or other such more exciting moments (maybe a comedy 3D effect here or there, but it’s rare), though in terms of highlighting the visuals, the 3D does its job pretty well. I don’t imagine that you would lose very much if you just watched The Nutcracker and the Four Realms flat in 2D, but the 3D cut’s small backdrop enhancements do make it the ideal way to experience this movie on the big screen. The 3D is never intrusive, and it sticks to a simple focus of accentuating the atmosphere, which is something that it does pretty well.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms may look pretty, and it may have its moments of charming fun, but its superficial setting and non-sensical storyline ultimately make it a misfire. It seems like moviegoing audiences just weren’t that interested in another Nutcracker adaptation to begin with either, especially when this story seems to be enjoyed much more as a stage ballet, rather than a big screen movie. Children are sure to enjoy the colourful visuals here, but adults will probably be frequently bored on account of how little this movie’s world truly manages to engage the audience. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms may be a significant improvement over The Nutcracker in 3D/The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, but it still isn’t that great, nor does it feel like it truly needs to exist.
If you have yet to experience The Nutcracker in any form, I strongly recommend that you seek out either a live or televised presentation of the ballet, which is definitely the best way to enjoy this story. The Nutcracker itself remains a Christmas institution, and as an uplifting Holiday story, it’s still plenty strong on the stage. Perhaps this is a testament to the fact that some stories just don’t translate well to film, especially when they inevitably start screwing with the foundation of what made the original product truly special. In trying to turn The Nutcracker into a blockbuster-friendly and kid-friendly fantasy franchise, Disney also ended up largely sucking the soul out of the story, which was a problem that also felt prevalent in Disney’s other big misfire and box office underperformer of 2018, that being this past March’s film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. These are two great stories that not even Disney could add anything to, and when even Disney falls short in the creative or emotional department, maybe these tales are just better off left alone by any movie studio.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is an attractive, but ultimately soulless and pointless attempt to adapt a beloved Christmas story into a blockbuster fantasy franchise.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
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THE GOOD STUFF
Mackenzie Foy is a charming lead
Tchaikovsky music remains enchanting
Attractive and colourful visual design, especially in 3D
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Storyline is often inconsistent and illogical
World building is superficial and unsatisfying
Bizarre, inexplicable revisions to several characters from the ballet and the short story