It’s been 202 years since E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote The
Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and we’re still trying to
make the perfect adaptation. The first ballet performance
premiered in 1892, with music by Tchaikovsky. A filmed version
of that from 1986, with sets designed by Maurice Sendak,
remains popular. And a 2010 adaptation, The Nutcracker in
3D, was easily the worst film of a year that included
Furry Vengeance, Cop Out, Grown Ups and
The good news is that Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four
Realms is nowhere near that level of ghastliness. (The
other good news is that it was directed by Lasse Hallström and
Joe Johnston, because you just know if Peter Jackson had got
his mitts on it he’d have made a nine-hour epic with one film
for each realm.)
For a start, the visuals are fantastic. The 19th century has
seldom looked so lived-in; you could freeze just about any
frame and revel in the costumes and set decoration. There’s
also a weird steampunk vibe happening, with all kids of
clockwork mechanisms, waterwheels and Rube Goldberg devices,
including a mousetrap. It’s great fun to watch.
The film opens in the Stahlbaum family house at Christmas.
Mother has recently died (this is Disney after all), and Father
(Matthew Macfadyen) tries to put on a brave face but ends up
with a mopey one. The protagonist, however, is Clara (Mackenzie
Foy), who receives a sort of Fabergé egg from her late mother,
but lacks a key to open it.
Enter Godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman in an eye patch
and a cameo), whose present is a trip to a magical world where
Clara tries to track down the key, which has been stolen by a
mischievous mouse. She’s helped by a nutcracker/soldier named
Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), who introduces her to the
realms’ regents, played by a falsetto-voiced Keira Knightley,
Mexico’s Eugenio Derbez, and Richard E. Grant, redeeming
himself after taking a small role in that 3D
Nutcracker, which I’d like to add cost $90 million to make
and grossed exactly $195,459. It really was horrendous.
Anyway, Helen Mirren plays Mother Ginger, the ruler of another
realm that looks like an amusement park gone to seed. We sense
that at least one of these monarchs might be misrepresenting
themselves, but the nice thing about a radical reworking of the
story is that, even when the narrative flounders, it at least
offers some surprises to those who know the original plot
backwards and forwards.
It’s worth letting fans know not to expect more than a little
of the ballet’s music in this version. We get the odd snippet,
along with a little bit of dance, but then it fades away in
favour of a score by James Newton Howard who, eight Oscar
nominations notwithstanding, is no Tchaikovsky.
Foy, who turned 17 during filming, turns in a strong
performance as Clara, switching between amused, bewildered and
frightened as the scene requires. The Four Realms
features some mild peril, but its PG rating means it should be
safe enough for most little ones, and its mix of Narnia and
Oz-like visuals should keep everyone engaged. It may not become
the Christmas classic Disney is hoping for, but it remains as
pretty as a decked-out tree.