OVERDUE REVIEW: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

(Image: rollingstone.com)

(Image: rollingstone.com)

For an occasional new segment, Every Movie Has a Lesson will cover upcoming home media releases combining an “overdue” film review, complete with life lessons, and an unboxed look at special features.



This was simply a case of a busy screening schedule at the beginning of November. As a working school teacher dad, I can’t see everything. For what it was, Bohemian Rhapsody won that weekend.


The next car in Disney’s lengthy train of developing classic fairy tales, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms sought to build a fantasy adventure for the family set around the Tchaikovsky ballet we all know and love. Rookie screenwriter Ashleigh Powell circled back to E.T.A. Hoffman’s original short story source of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Veteran adaptation expert Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, A Dog’s Purpose, and a pair of Nicholas Sparks films) took the helm and set up shop at the famed Pinewood Studios.

Interstellar and the Twilight saga’s Mackenzie Foy capably leads as Clara Stahlbaum, the middle child of a widower (Matthew Macfayden) in a family of privilege residing in Victorian London. They have come upon their first Christmas without their matriarch and the beleaguerment shows. Each of the Stahlbaum children are bestowed a gift reserved for them by her late mother. Clara receives a mysterious locked egg, something right up her inquisitive and STEM-smart alley.

Seeking answers, Clara visits her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), a renowned engineer hosting a high society Christmas ball. The clues she follows from Drosselmeyer nudge her to discover her mother’s former path to the titular quarter-zoned mythical land. Sure enough, Clara befriends an enlivened Nutcracker soldier (newcomer Jayden Fowora Knight) and learns of the four distinct lands of sweets, amusements, flowers, and snow, as well as their vastly different rulers and stewards, played by the array of Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, newly minted Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant, and Mexican sensation Eugenio Derbez.

LESSON #1: CHOOSING SIDES — Clara’s learns her mother created this world, a place of wild creations and derring-do. The realms have been rudderless since her departure. Clara’s destined arrival as a potential heir sets off a power struggle where loyalty must be discovered and proven. All of the sabre-rattling and mystifying makes time for a central stage performance from the Ballerina Princess played by the world-renowned dancer Misty Copeland.

LESSON #2: BELIEVE IN YOURSELF — The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is far from the first and surely not the last story to have a protagonist visitor changed for the better after seeing their worldview shaped by a fantastical journey that affirmed new perspective of what was likely already inside of them. More about this shallow depth later.


Somewhere along the way, this lavish project needed some course correction before finishing. Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston was brought in for a month-and-change of reshoots scripted with new uncredited polish by Oscar-winning Spotlight writer Tom McCarthy. Johnston was granted co-director status next to Hallstrom. Seeing the full film, it becomes easy to pick out the Johnston elements from the Hallstrom ones. Hallstrom covered the decadence and whimsy. Johnston took care of the action and brass.

No matter whose scene it is, the entire production looks righteously elegant which is a product of the extreme level of collected artistic talent. The light and lenses of La La Land and First Man cinematographer Linus Sandgren highlight every sheen of towering production design from Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception and Passengers), every stitch of the intricate costume work from Jenny Beaven (Mad Max: Fury Road), and every spot of makeup from Jenny Shircore (Mary Queen of Scots). Combine those three individuals with Hallstrom and ever-present fanciful music from composer James Newton Howard and you have 25 combined Oscar nominations and four wins below-the-title. This movie was never not going to look like a trillion bucks.

As supremely talented as everyone involved is (don’t forget about that lauded cast of fellow awards winners), the depth beyond the visuals is lacking with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The narrative is willowy and meandering, which matches the young lead of Foy, certainly, but her placid self makes the zip over everyone else, especially an over-the-top Knightley feel like caricatures. It is missing power and prominence the stage setting always nailed. Call it less is more. Call it over-exposition taking the place of wondrous interpretive performance. When something this eccentric matters this little and moves this slow, something is off worse than a need for reshoots and a second director.



(Image courtesy of Disney via EPK.tv)

(Image courtesy of Disney via EPK.tv)

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms arrived to DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital platforms on January 29. The disc set’s special features offer insightful but all-too-brief peeks into all that creative effort listed above. Past the prerequisite and pre-menu Dumbo teaser trailer, there are five tiny deleted scenes that are predominantly small shavings of existing scenes. The best one is a scene and conversation between Foy and Knightley talking about old memories of Clara’s mother. The ladies connected each other’s emotions subtly and well.

Performance fans will enjoy the conversation with lead dancer Misty Copeland. This four-and-a-half little piece on her creative process and the raves she received entering the film world for the first time will embolden those who wanted more dance sequences in the final cut. After Copeland, the disc includes two music videos. One is the enchanting “Nutcracker Suite” by featured pianist Lang Lang and the other is the powerhouse duet “Fall One Me” from the famed Andrea Bocelli and his fast-rising son Matteo Bocelli. Though beautiful work, both videos bounce pretty prescriptively between montage imagery from the film and the edited performers.

The cinephiles impressed by the production value should seek “Unwrapping The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” The longest extra on the release, the seven-minute featurette focuses on the set and production work of Guy Hendrix Dyas and set decorator Lisa Chugg. It was amazing to see how many practical sets and props went into this film, complete with their intentional palette of thematic colors. The stellar work could have earned more time.