To call The Nutcracker and the Four Realms an adaptation, or even a retelling of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker, would be misleading. A more accurate term would be “a bastardization” of the classic short story and ballet. A lot happens in Four Realms but very little of it matters much less makes any sense.
Four Realms is the story of a young girl Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) and the adventures she has one night at a Christmas party held by her Godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). Before you ask her name is pronounced, “Star-bomb.” Admittedly a wonderfully badass name that is wasted in Ashleigh Powell’s script. Clara finds out she is a Princess, which means her recently deceased mother Marie (Anna Madeley) was a Queen. She stumbles into the middle of a cold war between the realms and inadvertently heats it up. To top it all of there’s a machine that brings toys to life. Sprinkle in treachery, evil clowns, and a smidge of ballet and it’s the wonderful classic Holiday tale we all know and love.
Let’s start from the beginning: Young Clara is teaching her little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) how to build a mousetrap. By “mousetrap” I am of course referring to the classic 1980’s Milton Bradley game. The object of the game was to construct an elaborate Rube Goldberg device that ultimately does nothing but sow dissent and acrimony among all who play it. I’m only half joking. Clara does build an elaborate Rube Goldberg device to catch a mouse and unlike the game, it works. It takes almost a full minute for the trap to go through its machinations before dropping the cage onto the mouse. Luckily the mouse was waiting patiently for it machine to work itself out.
Lass Hallstrom and Joe Johnston co-directed Four Realms. The opening is their way of showing us that Clara is a special girl. She’s interested in mechanics and gears. Not frivolous things like dresses and makeup. She has a curious and inventive mind.
Foy’s Clara is the least of the problems in Four Realms. Foy’s Clara was a refreshing mix of confident with just the right amount of self-doubt befitting her character’s young age. She has a wonderfully expressive face that conveys stoicism and great emotion without overplaying the moment.
Long story short the whole family is broken up by the death of Marie. Depressed and grief-stricken, Clara is in no mood to go to her Godfather’s party. Her Father (Matthew Macfadyen) utters one of my favorite unintentionally morose and ominous lines all year: “Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.” He gives Clara a gift from her mother, a bejeweled Faberge egg with a lock but no key.
At the party, she shows her Godfather, Freeman with an eyepatch, her Mother’s gift. He chuckles knowingly as the two bond over the wonders of science and mechanics. He promised her a special gift but it’s hidden at the end of a long rope. Clara follows the rope into
Narnia the Christmas Tree Forest. She finds a key tied at the end of the rope and just as she reaches for it a mouse jumps out, grabs it, and runs away with Clara chasing it.
From here she will be plunged into palace intrigue as she meets the four other regents of the realms. We have the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) ruler of the land of Sweets, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) ruler of the land of the Flowers, and Shiver (Richard E. Grant) ruler of the land of Snowflakes. Now for those of your counting along you might notice that’s three, plus Clara’s mother makes four. Of course, you’d be wrong because Four Realms doesn’t trifle with such silly things such as math and logic.
There’s a fourth reagent, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), leader of the land of Amusements. So counting Marie, that’s five rulers but only four realms. Which means that Marie was Queen of them all, which makes sense because as we learn she is the one who discovered them.
Just roll with it. It’s all you can do.
Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy is far and away one of the best and most fun parts of Four Realms. She starts out as a hyperactive, chirpy, confidante but soon transforms into a bawdy Mae West inspired, demented, fascist dictator hell-bent on total domination. The Sugar Plum Fairy tricks Clara into giving her the key that operates a giant whirling machine with the power to bring toys to life. She orders tin soldiers to be placed under the ray. The Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora -Knight) stares on in horror, “You can’t do that. They’re made of tin. They’ll be hollow. They’ll be huge!” To which the Sugar Plum Fairy, and I’m not exaggerating, purrs and says, “Wonderful!”
At one point, as the Sugar Plum Fairy leads her army of giant tin soldiers to attack Mother Ginger, she declares, “Ooh. Big men in uniform with guns. It gives me the shivers.” Knightley continues her treasured holiday tradition of turning in a fully committed, bonkers performance in a movie totally undeserving of it.
Now you might be asking yourself, who is the Nutcracker? What is he doing there? And why does the Sugar Plum Fairy want to invade the Land of Amusements? I’ll answer them in order. First, he was guarding a bridge that led from the Christmas Tree Forest to the Land of Amusements, which made him the first person Clara met in the realms. As for why he’s there? I don’t know. He offers nothing to anything and has zero impact on the plot in any way, shape, or form.
As for why the Sugar Plum Fairy is attacking Mother Ginger and the land of Amusements? Because she feels like it. I’m not being facetious, that’s her literal motivation. Clara learns as she arrives that the other three realms have shunned the fourth realm but we never learn why. Not a huge deal, it’s just the entire catalyst of the plot. Once she learns of the three Regents hatred for Mother Ginger, Clara leads an army to invade the land of Amusements, and presumably kill Mother Ginger.
Mirren as Mother Ginger is wasted, as she is given about as much to do as the Nutcracker. She shows up only to tell Clara that all she knows is wrong. But before she can tell her why the two are interrupted. It’s an irritating script contrivance because the whole situation can so clearly be solved by letting a character utter either a word or a sentence. We never know what the conflict was or how it came to be misunderstood. All we know is that the Sugar Plum Fairy has been lying this whole time. About what? Your guess is as good as mine.
For about five minutes Four Realms almost works. The Sugar Plum Fairy invites Clara to a ballet to show her the story of how the realms came to be. Misty Copeland is an accomplished dancer and it’s a shame her pristine abilities are chopped to pieces by Hallstrom and Johnston. The duo cut away from the ballet to Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy explaining what we just saw. It’s akin to having a narrator for a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon.
A pity because Linus Sandgren’s camera work is breathtaking when he’s allowed to film Copeland and the rest of the dancers. The camera swirls around as we see the set unfold as Copeland gracefully glides through the frame. Unfortunately, the editing obliterates any sense of rhythm both in Copeland’s performance and the film’s pacing. The camera zooms in on Copeland’s toes, then cuts to her upper torso as she spins. Editing and framing are crucial when filming dance, ballet especially. This is a stark contrast to Sandgren’s other work, First Man. First Man was a gorgeous, meticulously astute, and immersive piece of cinematic craftsmanship. Under Hallstrom and Johnston, Sandgren is so hobbled he cannot even convey the beauty of movement of a dance sequence.
The one person who somehow escapes unscathed in all this is the production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas. For all the problems in Four Realms, the sets are not one of them. Dyas somehow captures a surreal reality for Clara’s world and a colorful and exaggerated fantasy for the different realms. Granted the designs are not perfectly nuanced, but they are perfectly suited for what The Nutcracker is: an abstract fairy tale told in broad strokes. By that measure the design of Clara’s castle, Mother Ginger’s hulking rusted mechanical doll, and disturbing Russian dolls/evil clown hybrids are all pitch perfect for what the feel of The Nutcracker is at its heart, a simple story told with music.
James Newton Howard’s score is dull, predictable, and a bombastic bore. It is made even more tiresome as Howard sprinkles in bits of Tchaikovsky’s score. A choir sings as set pieces are revealed but the result isn’t awe, wonderment, or even reflective. Instead, we feel tired and angry at knowing there is a better score, yet due to the filmmakers’ own hubris, they have neglected to use it because they have something “simpler” for us to listen to.
Four Realms is as hollow as the tin soldiers. A story that wastes the clear talent of Fowora-Knight, as the Nutcracker, as well as Foy’s Clara. It is a movie of so little joy and creativity that Richard E. Grant, who has shown such humor and pathos over his career, is reduced to having his face covered by icicles. Grant’s character has no lines, save his introduction. I didn’t even realize it was him until the credits rolled.
I had thought Peter Rabbit and Bohemian Rhapsody represented the heights of modern-day cynicism. But I was wrong. Four Realms is so unconcerned with its audience it can’t even be bothered to try and figure out why anything that happens matters. If the movie doesn’t care, why should we? Worst of all is the disservice to Copeland and Foy, whose talent shines so bright it is clear even through all its dreck. A shrill, naked, cash grab, Four Realms’ ultimate betrayal is not it’s lack of faith in us but it’s lack of faith in itself.