The visually impressive fantasy epic manages to thrill and surprise
Starring Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman
In Victorian London, plucky, independent, brave and clever Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is gifted a mysterious egg as the final present from her mother, who is recently deceased. On a quest to find the key that should open it, Clara finds herself transported into a magical kingdom, where her key is stolen by a strange mouse, leading her and new friend, a Nutcracker soldier called Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) into the mysterious Fourth Realm, ruled over by the malevolent Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who appears to have devious machinations for Clara’s key.
Clara discovers that her mother had great secrets from her family and had a past as Queen to all Four Realms, and leader over the four regents, having created the entire world using a contraption that brings toys to life. Clara must fill her mother’s shoes in the war against the so-called Land of Amusements, a quest that will prove as personally challenging as it is physically.
Being adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, as well as Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has the advantage that fewer audience members will be familiar with the source material than, say, with The Chronicles of Narnia. This means that they could execute greater creativity in not being beholden to following every plot point, allowing for some genuinely surprising and unexpected twists at the halfway mark. Coming into the film, it seems like such a standard “young girl finds a new world and learns something” story, and the conflict against Mother Ginger is so perfectly set up that the twist, when it comes, genuinely catches the audience entirely off guard and is brilliantly achieved.
The world of the four realms is gorgeously achieved, and it’s clear that no expense has been spared on the visual effects. From the snow laden trees and icy imagery of the Land of Snowflakes, to the Land of Sweets and Land of Flowers, this is truly a visual masterpiece. The filmmakers also lean heavily into the darker elements of the story, especially in regards to the Land of Amusements. Featuring the terrifying Mouse King, created with thousands upon thousands of writhing mice that would make musophobes out of the calmest amongst us, as well as unsettling polichinelles and a lumbering giant rendering of Mother Ginger herself, this film really pushes the constraints of a PG rating. Overall, the realisation of this exciting new world sets the film apart from similar films like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe through its spectacular visuals and sense of magical, whimsical wonderment.
James Newton Howard does a wonderful job in building music around Tchaikovsky’s existing score to create a stunning aural palette to the entire affair. The film also really brings the music into the centre, almost as an entirely new character, which is fitting for an adaptation of a ballet.
The cast is a strength throughout, with noticeably diverse casting as well. Mackenzie Foy is a brilliant heroine and gives Clara many incredible qualities, and we see her grow and develop from her grief at the beginning of the film. A flaw in the writing is that Clara is written to suddenly become a heroine who demonstrates impressive fighting skills. Clara’s previously established as having a fierce, incomparable intellect, and while these traits are still on display, her sudden ability to wield a sword and span cliff faces is more unexpected and come out of nowhere. Keira Knightley puts in a truly chaotic performance, really hamming up the airiness of Sugar Plum Fairy, but somehow manages not to make it feel one note. It is truly only the sort of performance an actress of her calibre can pull out for a children’s film.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms really sets itself apart through its incredible visuals, brilliant music, supremely well-realised fantasy world and unexpected plot twists. It may not be a Christmas classic that will be put on every year, but it’s a wonderfully involving and epic tale.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is streaming now on Disney+