Warning: Spoilers below!
Adapting the classic ballet “The Nutcracker” has apparently proven a hard nut to crack for Disney. Painstakingly perfected, with the aid of a month of reshoots and a new director sent in as a closer, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” offers a slick adventure spinoff of the original cozy tale.
As the title suggests, “Four Realms” supersizes the world of the “Nutcracker,” expanding the universe to include four very unique secret realms populated by living toys, each with its own ruler and each the invention of protagonist Clara’s (Mackenzie Foy) late mother, Marie Stahlbaum. Following the death of Marie, the realms fall into disarray and discord with the treacherous Fourth Realm apparently threatening to tear everything apart.
Clara, who inherited her mother’s technical chops and dreamy nature, is sent into the realms to restore order, where she must navigate a treacherous scene of shifting alliances and political intrigue, venture into lands populated by insane Matryoshka clowns and mouse tornadoes, and come to grips with her grief over her mother’s loss.
On paper, the movie has a lot going for it, including composer James Newton Howard adapting Tchaikovsky’s inimitable score, dancing from the legendary Misty Copeland and performances from the likes of Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley.
Unfortunately, the real world has snapped the story right out of its fantasy. Early reviews have been lackluster, with the tale of the four realms proving to be as hollow as the tin soldiers sent into the battle of toys. Is there still hope for this ballet adaptation? Or is it tragically out of step? HuffPosters Bill Bradley and Claire Fallon dig into the highs and lows of “Four Realms” below.
Bill: Claire, we’ve both now seen Disney’s new live action movie, “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms.” What are your initial thoughts? It was certainly nuts.
Claire: Both nuts and crackers! This movie was so all over the place, it’s hard to land on any neat takeaways. My very first initial impression was of intense dizziness. This film begins with a swooping camera spiraling through the London airspace, and there are lots of other aerial arabesques throughout. Turns out this technique makes me slightly nauseous, so I spent a lot of the movie limply sprawled in my seat, fighting vertigo. Am I the only person who reacts to movies this way? Am I too fragile to consume contemporary culture?
Putting that aside, I was also dizzy throughout the movie because I never really had any idea what was going on or why. What did you think of the action-packed new twist on the “Nutcracker” narrative?
Bill: Whenever the terrifying nesting egg clowns started opening themselves up, revealing even more terrifying nesting egg clowns, I knew this movie wasn’t for me. That being said, there are things people can enjoy. Keira Knightley has cotton candy hair. That’s cool. Misty Copeland’s ballet dancing speaks for itself. One of the moms beside me seemed to like the shirtless guy dancing in the credits. So there’s that. But those clowns, man. That’s some “American Horror Story”-level shit. Let’s back up a bit though, how did you feel about when we were introduced to Clara and her family?
Claire: Bill, I have a lot of feelings. When we meet Clara, she’s in the attic setting an elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap and explaining each scientific force involved to her little brother, Fritz. See, Clara isn’t just a girl: She’s an inventor and a scientist. The “girl power” messaging here felt a little shoehorned in, but I’m a sucker for a Violet Baudelaire type. Then we learn that Clara’s mother has recently died, and she has been avoiding her family ― her father, Tom from “Succession” Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen), her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber), and Fritz (Tom Sweet) ― because she hates their attempts to continue life with some normalcy.
The family gathers around the Christmas tree, and everyone makes a lot of heavy comments about how different it is now that mom is gone while Tom the father gazes dolefully into the middle distance. He gives the older sister her late mother’s favorite dress, and when Louise puts it on for a ball that evening, he directs a lingering, longing stare at her that only makes it more unsettling when he then insists on dancing with both his daughters at the party. The vibe is very pre-war purity ball. Why do they spend so much time talking about whether he’ll get a dance with his teenage daughters? Did something about this family portrait feel, uh, off to you?
“The vibe is very pre-war purity ball. Why do they spend so much time talking about whether he’ll get a dance with his teenage daughters?”
Bill: There’s a lot going on with this family. First of all, was that really the mom’s favorite dress? I looked back through my notes and one of the things I wrote was, “Why mom dress so ugly?” I don’t know much about style, but to me it looked like a dress from a rejected American Girl Doll, if that doll was also a zombie. I think that should’ve already been a sign that things were going to get weird (see clowns above). I’m sure the dancing thing was meant to be sweet, but the dad was just a little too insistent. Look, the family is going through a hard time. They’re in a Disney movie. Disney’s got a thing for killing off moms. I get it. It was just a bit uncomfortable.
Also, on the way to the party, after the dad calls dibs on dances with both his daughters, Fritz is like, “Who will dance with me?” And everyone just laughs, just mercilessly mocks this little kid. Clearly they’re saying Fritz isn’t cool enough to dance with anyone. Stupid Fritz. But I wasn’t sure why it was so funny, and it made me worried about the rest of the movie. What’d you think when they finally arrived at Drosselmeyer’s, aka Morgan Freeman, who is apparently some kind of pirate?
Claire: I laughed frequently during this movie, but rarely when the movie believed it had made a joke.
On a visual level, Drosselmeyer’s was a high point for me: a rambling old mansion, a ballroom filled with dancing couples, a steampunk workshop. Drosselmeyer is Clara’s godfather and cared for her mother after she herself was orphaned, and despite the pirate gear and suspiciously cryptic comments, he does seem to be a good dude. He also made the silver egg that Clara received from her parents (instead of an old hand-me-down dress like poor Louise); her mother left her the egg with a message saying everything she needs is inside.
The climax of Drosselmeyer’s party is the presentation of gifts to all the kids, which they have to find throughout the house by following ribbons tagged with their names. Fritz’s gift is a nutcracker soldier, which he waves in Clara’s face while hooting, “It’s your boyfriend!” Look, I had brothers, and they never teased me by suggesting that I was dating their Legos, but OK. We still have to deal with the fact that young girls in what appears to be Victorian-era England did not have “boyfriends.” Anachronism alert!
Drosselmeyer’s Christmas gift to Clara is the key that will open her fancy egg. However, he basically leaves her the key in a fantasy realm which she enters magical-portal-style, where it is promptly stolen before her very eyes by a marauding mouse. Why did he handle this in such a risky way? And, more importantly, what did you think of her introduction to the Four Realms?
Bill: First, I just want to mention that Drosselmeyer, who seems to have spent all his time tinkering in the basement with an invention that doesn’t work right and talking to an owl, still has time to set up an elaborate string maze for all the kids at the party to follow around his crazy house to find their presents. That’s time management.
And wow, to paraphrase one of the iconic moments in “Venom,” so many realms, so little time. There’s some sort of anthropomorphic flower man in charge of the Flower Realm; an icicle dude running the Snow Realm; Keira Knightley and her accent running the Realm of Sweets; and Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger towering over the Fourth Realm in a giant robot that’s infested with mice. Did I miss any? Yes, I looked them up on Wikipedia to make sure I had them straight. This movie’s got realms on realms on realms. Bummed there’s not even more realms? Check under your seat! You get a realm! You get a realm! Everybody gets a realm!
Apparently, it was Clara’s mom who put all this realm madness together. What do you think about the impact her mom had on the realms and Clara’s journey?
Claire: I think it’s actually the Realm of Snowflakes (way more whimsical than Snow). Please be precise! Also, pretty sad that Drosselmeyer just couldn’t get his invention to work, and then Clara fixed it in three seconds. I know she’s a genius, but he’s a much more experienced genius.
So yes, let’s talk about the superbrain behind all this: Clara’s mom, Marie. According to Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), the denizens of the Four Realms were all lifeless toys until Marie invented an engine that, through the power of physics and engineering, magically transformed them into living creatures with feelings. Yes: This is a movie about the ethics of artificial intelligence and the singularity. A twist I genuinely didn’t see coming!
“Yes: This is a movie about the ethics of artificial intelligence and the singularity. A twist I genuinely didn’t see coming!”
I was left at sea as to the details: Did the realms exist before the engine? Did Marie invent the other world as well as the toy people inside it? Who is really in charge here? And if the leaders of the realms are just lackeys for Marie, the queen of everything, how did they function during the long stretches of time while she was with her family? Clara learns that time passes much more quickly within the realms, such that the party is still going when she returns after what feels like weeks of adventuring. So if her mom left long enough to, say, go to sleep or have a baby, it seems like years would probably pass in the realms.
But Marie’s death has really thrown this world into disarray: The resulting political instability during her unexplained absence is what separated the Fourth Realm from the other three, and only Princess Clara’s reemergence offers any hope of unity again.
Can we talk about the Nutcracker, by the way? The whole movie is named after him, and I keep forgetting he was even there.
Bill: You mean the Captain, aka Phillip, aka Mr. Irrelevant? I liked the nutcracker. He seemed like a solid dude, and when he opened the simple bridge gate by going through all these elaborate steps ― that was my favorite part. That and when Keira Knightley says, “Oh poo.” But why is he even in this story? It’s clear from the start this is about all realms all the time. Even when he goes with the mouse to warn Mother Ginger later in the movie, I’m like, “Why is he going? Couldn’t the mouse just tell her?” Maybe Clara realizes he’s irrelevant too and is like, “I’m done with this sad boy. Better send him to Mother Ginger so I can kick soldier ass with actual kicks.”
Claire: Captain Philip, self-proclaimed only nutcracker in the kingdom even though there are a lot of other soldiers who look pretty much the same so what toys are they made from, is very nice. He’s too good for Clara, frankly. As soon as he finds out she’s a princess and bows to her, she makes a hobby of ordering him cheekily into danger. She insists that they cross into the Fourth Realm, over his frantic objections, only to agree that it’s too dangerous as soon as SHE sees something freaky. “That’s an order, Captain!” How fun! She always grins extra-wide while issuing orders to him, like it’s a cute little game that she can send him to his death and he will obey without protest. They have a quasi-romantic friendship vibe throughout, and if I were Clara I would probably try to take it to the next level because he’s very handsome, but nothing happens.
Shall we talk about the big twist, where it turns out Sugar Plum is evil? Whoops, spoiler! I think I actually liked Evil Keira better than Elfin Keira. What did you think?
Bill: There was one scene where to show Elfin Keira has wings, she laughs and pops her wings out, flies up, and flies down. And it’s like ... uh, OK. Moving on. But Evil Keira? Like she says about boys in uniform, she sends a quiver right through me. Can we talk about all the adult jokes she starts cracking?
Claire: Discourse about threatening female sexuality was invented in preparation for Evil Keira. As soon as she commandeers the life-giving engine to animate tin soldiers (which, inexplicably, do not behave like any of the other animated toys), she turns from sugar baby to unapologetic size queen! When Clara points out with horror that the transformed tin soldiers are enormous, Keira drawls, “I know, isn’t it magNIFicent?” I should also add that she says it’s boys in uniform, with weapons, that send a quiver right through her. Mmm, sexually aroused by weapons. Truly chilling.
What about another performance we haven’t much discussed, Mackenzie Foy as Clara? Were you impressed?
Bill: The biggest issue for me was the moment she realized her mom wanted her to know that everything she needs is inside of her. She stares at a mirror in a music box, looking at her own face, but she juuuuust can’t quite get there. In my head, I was just pleading, “Everything you need is inside you! C’mon, dude, you’re the cleverest person around! For the love of God it’s all inside you!” I felt like I lived a thousand lifetimes in that moment. The horrible clowns were jumping out of their own bodies; Keira Knightley was becoming a size queen over and over; and it was all happening in slow motion. Time was a flat circle. But thank Mother Ginger, she eventually she did put it together. For me, that was more of a story thing than acting, but how did you feel about the performances overall?
Claire: Yes, that was a frustrating moment ― but not quite as infuriating, to me, as when she first opens the egg and finds nothing but a beautiful tune playing. “There’s nothing here!” she spits, disgusted. Her mom promised everything she needed would be inside! I’m not sure what she expected to find, but maybe a tiny living version of her mom? A pocketknife, but one of the really good ones with a bottle-opener attachment and little tweezers?
But OK, that’s on the story, not Foy. Still, I mostly found her performance pretty blank, which is unfortunate since she’s the lead. She has one expression, with a slightly open mouth and tilted head, for when she’s feeling confused, curious, sad, or annoyed, and then a broad grin for when she’s taunting Captain Philip. In the final frenetic battle scene, Clara has to take on droves of tin soldiers almost singlehanded, unarmed, and she polishes them all off with well-timed kicks and punches, but she doesn’t sell the martial arts prowess. I actually wrote in my notes, “I am not convinced Clara could kick anyone’s ass unless the choreography demanded it.” Any other broad takeaways from “Four Realms”?
“The movie actually kind of just stops at one point so everyone can watch the dancing and eat their cotton candy hair. It needed more of that.”
Bill: Not a lot, except that I think the spirit of the mom is trapped inside the owl. But I don’t want to get into it. Like I said earlier, one of the moms in the theater really liked the dancing at the end, and the dancing throughout is obviously spectacular. The movie actually kind of just stops at one point so everyone can watch the dancing and eat their cotton candy hair. It needed more of that. More cotton candy hair and dancing. Less karate kid moves and sad boys. And the mom is an owl. What about you? Who would you recommend this to?
Claire: I would argue that the spirit of the mom is not trapped inside the owl, because at one point Drosselmeyer refers to the mom as “she” in conversation with the owl. Perhaps the owl is her old familiar? Is she a witch? TBD. The best parts of “Four Realms,” sadly, are the parts that you could get elsewhere: Tchaikovsky’s incredible score, and Misty’s ballet moves. There are two significant Misty sequences, one in a Three Realms ballet that is meant to tell the story of the land’s history, and one in the credits. Her performance is so fluid and graceful, I couldn’t look away. I just wish the camera didn’t keep forcing me to look away ― there were a lot of cuts to close-up during the ballet scenes that I thought detracted from the flow of the dancing.
Before my mom died when I was a kid, we used to go see the local ballet company perform “The Nutcracker” every holiday season. If you’re a parent with young kids, I recommend that instead. If you’re a Keira superfan, definitely check out her deranged sex maniac fairy turn in “Four Realms.”
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.