Film Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

An extravagantly visual big-screen movie inspired by the famous “Nutcracker” ballet story, this live-action Disney production may enchant young viewers but leave balletomanes wanting more than the brief dance episodes featuring Misty Copeland.
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Not aimed at balletomanes, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a Disney live-action fantasy-adventure, is short on actual ballet dancing and long on extravagant visual stimuli—ravishing 1890s London street scenes, lavish mansion interiors, a Russian palace surrounded by a moat, snow-covered woods, a nightmarish amusement park, and hordes of characters in gorgeous period costuming or elaborate fantastical attire. Despite appearances by ballet superstars Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin in snippets of classical choreography (by the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer Liam Scarlett), the film’s main “dancer” is the camera, which moves with gusto. It soars, dips, races, plunges, then flies spectacularly high above the dazzling visual environments, the exciting speed and daring of the camerawork, animation and visual effects lending lifeblood to the comparatively static screenplay (by Ashleigh Powell).

The thematic owl’s-eye perspective on the proceedings aligns with the adventure story’s symbolic inclusion of an animated owl character. Inspired by the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story and its famous ballet adaptation “The Nutcracker,” the film (directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston) borrows and cleverly alludes to many elements from the source material in ways that may amuse those with detailed knowledge of the ballet and its glorious Tchaikovsky score (here heard in excerpts conducted by Gustavo Dudamel).

Like the familiar ballet, the film is set at a Christmas Eve party and involves a girl named Clara who, accompanied by a Nutcracker Prince, travels through a snowstorm to a fairytale world where she encounters odd characters representing diverse international flavorings, and plays a heroic role in a battle between tin soldiers and mice. However, in the film’s narrative Clara’s mother, Marie, has recently died and an owl—who sees the world from the vantage point of Marie, who is presumably in heaven—is charged with protecting Clara and symbolizes the wisdom Marie passed down to her daughter in the form of a mysterious egg. It’s the search for the key to open that egg that drives the action, while the knowledge contained within it is what allows Clara to “save the day”—coupled, of course, with her scientific know-how, as in true current-day-heroine fashion, Clara is smart and STEM-oriented.

While Mackenzie Foy makes a perfectly lovely Clara, and the always-intriguing Helen Mirren is warmly tyrannical as the fierce Mother Ginger, Morgan Freeman is underused in the role of Drosselmeyer, Clara’s nurturing godfather. The two show-stealers are Keira Knightley, who channels Marilyn Monroe in a magnetic portrayal of the sexy Sugar Plum Fairy, and an irresistible animated mouse, who is beyond-words adorable.

A movie that should be seen on the big screen, in order to fully appreciate its special effects, this Disney production will likely enchant lots of little girls and boys while also tugging at the heartstrings of grown-up sons and daughters who still value all that was given to them by their departed parents. And a final note for dance-lovers: Stay for the credits, as they are screened over footage of dancing by, not only Copeland and Polunin, but also Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, whose signature jookin moves were the basis for the movements of the movie’s animated Mouse King character.