‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’: Window Dressing Without Substance ✮

Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a handsome production with wonderful actors, gorgeous costumes by Jenny Beavan (“Gosford Park”) and lovely sets by Lisa Chugg, but ploddingly directed by Lasse Hallstöm (“The Hundred-Foot Journey” and “Chocolat”) and Joe Johnson (“Captain America: The First Avenger”). This is the most irritatingly artificially sweetened confection, the kind that makes your teeth ache and leaves a bitter aftertaste with no energetic sugar rush.

Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay is a mess, taking the audience back to the original 1816 E.T.A. Hoffman story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” about a sister and brother and their clock-maker godfather Drosselmeyer with nods to the two-act ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov (score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) and a heavy dose of modern mayhem and awkward political correctness.

The movie begins with clever Clara (Mackenzie Foy) setting a Rube Goldberg mouse trap into motion for the entertainment of her younger brother, Fritz (Tom Sweet),  in the attic. The trap has at least two major design flaws. The first is that the mouse could easily escape the basket. The second is that it ends on the trap door to the attic and just as the mouse is trapped, a servant, the cook (Meer Syal), opens that door, summoning the children down.

Set in England (filming in South Kensington and the Pinewood Studios), you might have a fleeting thought about mice or rats and the bubonic plague. The Great Plague was perhaps too long ago (1665–66). You also might wonder why the brother has a Germanic name. But the emotional plot device Powell uses is the recent death of the mother, Marie Stahlbaum (Anna Madeley). Clara doesn’t feel like celebrating Christmas, but her father Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen) is doing the “stiff upper lip” thing. They must do what is expected and attend the Christmas party. He gives them gifts from their mother before they go. Clara’s older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) gets her mother’s favorite dress. Fritz gets toy soldiers and Clara gets an exquisite silver egg, but no key. Putting the egg in the pocket of her dress (this might come as news to most of the women and girls in the audience because few dresses have practical things like pockets.

The Christmas Eve party is at their godfather’s, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). Although Clara has promised her father a dance, she quickly goes down to the basement, finding her inventor godfather and asking him about the egg. She helps him fix an swan automaton. The godfather knows something and is obeying the wishes of the late mother.

When the kids all go out into the snow dusted garden, they follow threads that have their names. Clara’s leads to a key, but the key is stolen by a mouse and, like Alice was led to Wonderland by a rabbit, Clara is led to the Four Realms by a mouse. The first person she meets is Captain Philip Hoffman, who is the Nutcracker, but here, in the Four Realms, he is the protector of the Three Realms. From her, she learns that her mother had visited the Four Realms and was considered the queen. The Four Realms are no longer unified. The Fourth Realm is under the reign of Mother Ginger (Hellen Mirren) to whom the Mouse King is aligned.

Clara, led by the Captain, rides his black horse Jingles to a great castle where she meets Hawthrone,,,, the ruler of the Flower Realm (Eugenio Derbez); Shiver, the ruler of the Snow Realm (Richard D. Grant); and the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ruler of the Sweets Realm (Keira Knightley). They teach her the history of the Four Realms through a ballet which features Misty Copeland as the princess.

Clara becomes determined to get the key because it is the same key that can save the Three Kingdoms from the tyranny of Mother Ginger. She will lead an army to do it but there will be a twist and come cliff hanging. Tin soldiers will appear and you’ll have to wonder how long this battle will take because of the absurdly big CGI sets and the pace of the tin soldiers.

That is one of the pitfalls of the CGI world. Drosselmeyer’s house is wondrously large, even before Clara sets on her journey. The ceiling is domed and the displays are museum like. The basement is airy and filled with things that might make the prop sale a steampunker’s dream. But the scenes under the fake snow are too fantastical for anyone who has spent a wet winter in England or the American Midwest. The separation between the real world and the Four Realms is a slim ribbon of prettier. I don’t remember any soldiers in the real world, but in each winter is magically warm, dry and beautiful. Death in the Four Realms is still death.

As this is a Disney family movie, PG for mild peril, there will be a happy ending. Clara will come to terms with her mother’s death and never breaks pretty during all her travails. She’ll better understand her father and her godfather will, as Morgan Freeman often does, will look knowingly wise.

The best part of the movie plays during the credits. Misty Copeland dances again as does Charles “Lil Buck” Riley. One wishes for more dance and less CGI and hopes that the DVD/Blu-ray will include the full dance choreography. The edits often emphasize Copeland’s footwork, enough to make a foot fetishist happy. She dances a pas de deux and the male dancer surely is an exceptional dancer as well.

As family entertainment, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is best admired through its costumes. As an addition to the Nutcracker, it is minor and nothing magical. People with coulrophobia, be forewarned.

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