The only logical questions to ask after watching The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) are: Huh? What? Of course, these questions are the result of some familiarity with the original story. In order to gain such familiarity, I recently watched the source material thanks to Fathom events’ airing of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet, which in turn is based on a short story called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by German E. T. A. Hoffman. Confused yet? Good. It is going to get worse. I cannot tell you how faithful is the ballet to the short story. I can truthfully report that the ballet does, in fact, have a nutcracker and a mouse king, so kudos on those two counts. As for today’s film, it is like somebody wandered on to a soundstage where directors Lasse Hollström and Joe Johnston (yes, there are two listed directors) were sitting around, doing nothing I suppose, and overheard said person maybe listening to Tchaikovsky’s original score. Hollström and Johnston had been pondering what project to tackle next, and when they heard the music a simultaneous flash of inspiration struck both of them . . . and they went in the last direction you might expect them to take it. I am wildly speculating, of course, but neither do I fully understand this film.
At some point in late nineteenth century England, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms begins with children on Christmas Eve receiving gifts from their dead mother, handed them by their father Benjamin Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen). Why this could not be Russia or Germany, I do not know. At any rate, of the three children, the one focused on the most is Clara (Mackenzie Foy), the eldest daughter. She had the closest relationship with their mother, from whom Clara inherited a knack for mechanical objects. Her present is a gilded metal egg with a note attached proclaiming that everything she needs is inside. Because she wants to find a way of opening the egg, she initially does not want to attend the Christmas party being hosted by her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) because of desire to unlock the recalcitrant object. Nonetheless, Benjamin prevails upon her, making her promise to give at least one dance with him before the night is through. When she gets there, she instead finds her engineer godfather who informs Clara that the egg was something he had made for her mother. Clara’s interactions with Drosselmeyer take her away from the dance floor, and lead to an angry exchange with Benjamin. Regardless, she takes part in a game with the rest of the young party guests that leads her along the path of a string with a key at the end of it. Thinking it might help her open the egg, she reaches out to grab it. However, a mouse takes it first, and disappears down a dark hallway with Clara in pursuit. She eventually emerges into a snow-covered landscape with the rodent thief about to cross a bridge. Once there, she is able to enlist the help of Captain Phillip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the Nutcracker, to retrieve her prize. Their chase leads them into the foreboding realm of the mouse king, and its regent, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). The dangers Captain Hoffman warns of prove true, and they are forced to flee to the one place where he knows they can be safe, the palace at the center of the Four Realms. When she arrives, they recognize her as the daughter of their former ruler, Queen Marie (Anna Madeley), thus affording Clara the rights and privileges of her mother. The person who explains the current state of affairs in the land is the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), who is in charge of the Land of Sweets. Her and the representatives of Land of Flowers and the Land of Snowflakes have been ruling since Queen Marie went away, the one person missing being Mother Ginger. Sugar Plum claims that Mother Ginger took Queen Marie’s loss poorly, thus separating from the others. Sugar Plum also explains that this whole world was created by Queen Marie from her toys, making them all loyal to their creator. Convinced that Mother Ginger had betrayed her mother’s memory, and wanting to get her key, Clara uses a machine invented by her mother to make toy soldiers come alive to invade the Land of Amusements. Clara goes with her, and in the struggle she learns that the reason Mother Ginger had been banished from the palace is because the Land of Amusement’s regent had stood up to Sugar Plum’s attempt to seize control of the land. Clara also manages to get the key, and when she opens the egg finally, there is a mirror inside. This emboldens her to put a stop to Sugar Plum’s designs to create more soldiers and seize power. With some help from Mother Ginger, Clara is able to change the machine’s settings and turn Sugar Plum back into a toy. With the realms now saved, Clara returns to the party with a newfound sense of herself and her mother. Finding Benjamin, they apologize to each other, and end the film with the promised dance.
Somewhat related to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, the original story features a Christmas Eve party, and a girl playing with toys that appear to have come to life. Of course, with the ballet, you have to use your imagination somewhat as to how this all happens, though that is made easier by the artistry on display. I suppose, because they were not simply producing a film version of the orchestral and stage shows, having dialog was going to pose a challenge. A ballet is meant to tell a narrative through rhythmic body movements. The spoken word would be out of place. It should also be noted that today’s film was made by Disney, which means it was aimed at a younger generation. When I took my nieces to The Nutcracker ballet, they each got up to go to the bathroom twice in the middle of the show. Though they claimed to have enjoyed the production, you can draw your own conclusions as to the reasons for the frequency of their restroom trips. Still, I do not see why they took direction they went in with the movie. I submit that setting it in Germany or Russia would make more sense than England. Also, the source material is about a trip to the top of a Christmas tree. While both versions feature characters that have to grow up during a journey, the film one takes these plot points to the extreme. Finally, I still do not understand the purpose of Drosselmeyer’s character.
As this is the Christmas season, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is supposedly a Christmas movie, why not make a silly comparison between Clara and Mary. Both had been set aside from birth for a special purpose. With Mary, it was to give birth to the Son of God, Jesus. For Clara, it is to eventually take her mother’s place as the ruler of the Four Realms. These are roles for which they did not volunteer, but were instead thrust upon them. What is interesting is that each did not hesitate to take on these new responsibilities. There is an interesting line in the movie where Clara corrects Sugar Plum as to how a queen should behave, stating that a ruler does what is best for her people. What was best for mankind was when Mary said yes to the Archangel Gabriel when the Heavenly messenger told her that she was to bear Jesus. Throughout the other brief mentions of her in the Bible, she never seeks anything for herself, but is always pointing the way to the Savior. This is one of the many reasons why the Catholic Church venerates her as a queen.
Admittedly, many of the criticisms I had for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms stems from my knowledge of how it was originally supposed to look. At the same time, there are aspects that do not make any sense no matter what you may or may not know. I will give it credit for being something different from your usual Christmas movie. It is safe for any audience, as well. Just do not try to figure it out.