If I were not a film critic, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is probably a movie I would never see. The ads have been unconvincing, I’m not a die-hard Nutcracker fan, and it looked like overblown CGI spectacle. But the marketing has done the movie a disservice and I was rather taken by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston’s film. They’ve made a solid adventure movie for kids that’s not afraid to be weird, poetic, bombastic, and earnest. Rather than just coasting on the name recognition of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet or the stories that inspired that ballet, Four Realms attempts to weave those stories together into something new that’s still a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a movie that’s going to help get you in the holiday spirit in an unexpected way, then you ought to give The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a chance.
The story follows Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), an incredibly intelligent young woman who has recently lost her brilliant mother. As their father (Matthew Macfadyen) grieves, the family, which also includes Clark’s brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) and sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) try to hold it together at a holiday party thrown by Clara’s inventive godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). When it comes time for the kids to look for presents, Clara’s search takes her into the Four Realms, a kingdom her mother imagined with such depth and detail that it literally sprung to life. However, the Four Realms are in trouble due to the threat of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who previously oversaw the Land of Amusements. Backed by the regents of the other realms—the Land of Sweets, the Land of Snowflakes, and the Land of Flowers—Clara, with the help of Nutcracker Captain Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) resolves to retrieve a special key that will help bring peace to the land.
There are times when the plot can be a little too convoluted for its own good with various twists, double-crosses, and Macguffins that seem piled on to keep the adventure going rather than just organically following Clara’s journey. But what makes Four Realms surprisingly good is how unique it’s willing to be, especially for a holiday tentpole from a studio like Disney. For example, when the regent of the Land of Sweets, Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) is explaining to Clara how their world came into being, the directors choose to depict this origin by providing a brief nod to Disney’s classic Fantasia and then diving into an extended ballet sequence. Rather than pander to its audience, Nutcracker usually errs on the side of artistry and bold choices that may not be for everyone, but they give the film a distinct flavor and personality.
The mere existence of Nutcracker and the Four Realms should also be applauded because typically we don’t get PG adventure movies, especially ones where the hero is a young woman rather than a boy. The emotional core of this movie is between a deceased mother and her daughter, and that’s welcome and remarkable, especially at the PG level where Nutcracker is targeting kids ages 6-11. The movie has thrills and humor and warmth, but it’s all age-appropriate, and I find that incredibly heartening in a landscape where Venom gets to be PG-13 because violence is for kids as long as there’s no blood.
Rather than try to appeal to everyone, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has a very clear idea of what it wants to be, and while the plotting sometimes falters (you get the sense that Clara’s mother only cared about Clara and kind of forgot her other two children), it’s a movie that’s brimming with energy and creativity. For some audience members, none of these choices are going to work. They’re not going to like ballet; they’re not going to like Knightley’s sugary-voiced Sugar Plum; they’re not going to like a giant mechanical Helen Mirren, although how anyone could dislike that is beyond me. But as I’ve said before, I like movies that dare to be different and opt for creativity over homogeny.
I went into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms with a great deal of skepticism, and it won me over. It’s bright, colorful, the costumes and production design are incredible, and it helped get me in the Christmas spirit. As I watched the movie, I began thinking of fun holiday activities and the special Christmas feeling that arrives once Halloween has passed. Hallström and Johnston’s movie sets out to be a unique holiday adventure, and I couldn’t help but be swept up in the distinctive world they concocted.