Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS
Rated PG, 99 minutes
Directed by: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Jayden Fowora-Knight , Helen Mirren, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Macfadyen, Ellie Bamber, Tom Sweet
THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS has a very good, heartrending heroine at the center of a very poorly executed narrative. It’s a jumbled mess of ideas with none of them functioning as precisely as they should given the enduring nature of the elegant source material. The most famous iteration is benched in favor of directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston’s reimagined take – a sequel “suggested by” E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Marius Petipa’s “Nutcracker Ballet” – telling the story of a brave, budding inventor’s grief-fueled quest to live up to her deceased mother’s legacy. However, it lacks a distinctive, innovative drive necessary to keep the gears in the machine greased. What’s left, though visually sumptuous and well-acted, is almost as hollow as a tin solider.
Middle child Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is an inquisitive, innovative fourteen-year-old, inventing Rube Goldberg devices in her family’s attic. These entertaining distractions are her way of containing the sorrow over her mother Marie’s recent passing. While her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) have also found ways of coping with the loss (ways we don’t necessarily see but are forced to assume), their father Richard (Matthew Macfadyen), caught in the first four stages of grief, has mandated that the family carry on with holiday festivities as normal. The Christmas tree is perfectly trimmed. The love of family warms the home, thickly coating the air. And presents are given from the entire family, including gifts from the kids’ deceased mother, who willed Clara a mysterious, locked, pearl-encrusted metal egg designed by Clara’s inventor godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman).
Maintaining tradition also means attending Drosselmeyer’s lavish Christmas ball, which attracts all of London’s high society families. It’s there where Clara’s journey of personal discovery begins, leading her into an adventure in the fantastical four realms. These realms are guarded over by the Nutcracker Captain Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and run by the regent of the land of sweets, baby-voiced Sugar Plum Fairy (Kiera Knightley); the regent of the land of snowflakes, Shiver (Richard E. Grant); the regent of the land of flowers, flamboyant Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez); and the former regent of the land of amusements, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who got herself banished and is at war with the other three realms.
Screenwriter Ashleigh Powell half-bakes many of the film’s big ideas – and sadly, all of this could’ve been fixed by a few extra passes on the script. For example, Clara should’ve been an only child, as her brother and sister are completely superfluous. They’re even insultingly brushed aside by their godfather at the end, in a line that’s supposed to be uplifting. That doesn’t mean the other emotional aspects of her arc don’t sufficiently land. They actually do. The filmmakers, along with the formidable Foy, perfectly nail Clara’s burning desire and uncertainty surrounding her dead mother’s legacy. It feels palpable, especially for those in the audience who’ve been thrust into similar situations – granted, not in fantasy realms. She gets to hear the confirmation and validation those suffering from loss would love to hear.
The rest of the picture is bogged down by convolution, contrivance and exposition. Time and time again, we’re shown and then told everything we were just shown. It’s like watching a movie for the blind with the audio description turned on. Sugar Plum Fairy narrates the Nutcracker Ballet performance. Clara yells to her army that mice are attacking the carousel when it’s clearly shown that’s what’s happening. And so on and so on. There’s hardly any room for subtleties.
It’s an absurdist travesty that a film “suggested by” (as the lingo cleverly states) a world-renowned ballet doesn’t take ample time to spotlight the art of dance. In fact, it’s treated as an afterthought, favoring a fairly generic, utterly predictable story instead. What’s even more astounding is that the filmmakers recruited incredibly inspiring artists like Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, and Charles “Lil’Buck” Riley, who all elevate the art form to new heights, yet are not given the showcase they deserve. Their sequences are cut to bits, so those searching for a transcendent dance performance best look elsewhere. The same goes for the music. Tchaikovsky’s iconic compositions are threaded throughout, but are never given sequences long enough to show off their time-honored power. Instead, James Newton Howard’s wall-to-wall score dominates.
Despite all the narrative faults and other creative failings, there are a handful of highlights. The worlds the filmmakers create feel tangible and immersive. Jenny Beavan’s costume design and Jenny Shircore’s brilliant makeup and wig design are absolutely scrumptious. Literally. The scene featuring Sugar Plum ripping out her cotton candy hairdo to stuff a handful of the confection into her mouth should be this film’s FYC submission. Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design provides a dazzling setting for the actors to play dress-up.
Since this is a story about an inventive young woman finding her strength amidst sorrow, it makes me wish she was in a much more innovative film. Imagine if those titular four realms represented the stages of grief Clara had to overcome, instead of a place where a lackluster, generic, predictable story unfolds.
NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS opens on November 2.