The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

Mackenzie Foy stars as Clara, suffering through grief with her father and two siblings during their first holiday without her recently deceased mother, Marie.  Clara receives an enigmatic and ornate Christmas gift, the last from her mother, a metallic contraption shaped like an egg with an elaborate keyhole that came with no key that might fit accompanying it. She is despondent that she cannot open it without ruining it, and it causes her to be depressed during the big holiday gala put on by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). who, it turns out, had created the egg for her mother.  During the events of the evening at Drosselmeyer’s mansion, she follows a string that will lead to Drosselmeyer’s own gift to her, way out from the party and into another dimension, to a mystical and magic-fueled world called the Four Realms.

The Four Realms is a contentious place since the loss of their queen, who turns out to have been her very own mother.  Clara aims to find the key to her mother’s gift, while also trying to reunite the realms that are in disarray from a variety of competing factions out to make their own rule.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is barely an adaptation by Disney of the 19th Century traditional Nutcracker ballet from Marius Petipa, based on the E.T. A. Hoffman’s short story, “The Nutracker and the Mouse King.”  Two directors, both quite different in approach, are credited for the film: Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston.  Hallstrom was the original director, leaving to fulfill another commitment, and Johnston came on board late in order to perform about a month of reshoots. Even with the two different visions, the film doesn’t really feel like a hastily patchwork in its appearance, though the story’s pacing issues could suggest that it wasn’t a perfect transition to merging what exists with what needed to be reworked.

It’s a stunningly realized affair, with some gorgeous cinematography, and a seamless blend of CG and live-action elements within those viewscapes.  It’s a film that puts a great deal of emphasis on its set, costume and visual design, such that, even if the emotional elements within the narrative itself seem absent to a large degree.  Very good modeling of the CG creatures as well, including an eerie and somewhat off-putting creature made up from the stirring activity of thousands of small mice acting in unison, along with creepy toys coming to life in the form of life-size tin soldiers, as well as the gargantuan robotic construct that is Mother Ginger’s menacing way to instill fear in her own Realm.  A fine score accompanies the visual splendor; along with the eye-dazzling makeup and costume work, all of the pieces are there for a rip-roaring fantasy adventure based on a traditional Christmas tale and message.

Scripted by first-timer Ashleigh Powell, the film goes through a traditional journey, built upon revealing not only the mystery as to the key and the contents of the egg it opens, but also the nature of her mother’s secret life as the queen of the four realms.

The acting isn’t remarkable, save perhaps for a cotton candy-tufted Keira Knightly as the benignly quirky and somehow eerie, a fairy named Sugar Plum, who gets top billing despite playing more of a supporting role.  Emotional content is there in form but not quite in content, as the personal beats take a back seat to the visuals, as well as the mounting battle among the factions ahead.

It’s not a film that will likely stick in the minds of most viewer, as it does feel a tad generic in many respects, but while it plays, it engages just enough to consider it worthwhile entertainment.  It certainly isn’t going to fit the bill if you want to see the story of the Nutcracker in its purest glory.  It is relatively short for something that aims to be an epic film, but given the story elements aren’t really enough to sustain a three-hour picture, it is a wise move to strive for brevity when there isn’t enough meat on the bone.

Along those lines, the story isn’t compelling without the pretty pictures, with some slowness and bits of awkwardness in pacing that emerges from time to time, and there is a predictability to it throughout, but it’s one of those cases where the journey is picturesque and satisfying, such that you may find it enjoyable even when you know where things are going.

Qwipster’s rating: B-

MPAA Rated: PG for some mild peril
Running Time: 99 min.

Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Matthew Macfadyen, Misty Copeland, Richard E. Grant, Eugenio Derbez
Director: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Ashleigh Powell