Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston
Stars: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Matthew MacFadyen, Richard E Grant, Eugenio Derbez, Morgan Freeman, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Ellie Bamber, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin.
Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and premiering in 1892, The Nutcracker is one of the most popular ballets of all time. The libretto for the ballet was adapted from E T A Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker And The Mouse King. Now Disney has brought The Nutcracker to the screen in this colourful and imaginative fantasy that serves up a loose retelling of the timeless story.
The film opens in Victorian era London one Christmas Eve. We are introduced to our central character Clara (played with winning charm by Mackenzie Foy, from Interstellar, etc), who is grieving the death of her mother. Clara has grown distant from her father (Matthew McFadyen), and spends most of her time in the attic tinkering with her inventions. Clara’s mother left her a posthumous Christmas gift – a locked porcelain egg. But Clara doesn’t know how to open it.
At a fancy-dress Christmas Eve Ball she approaches her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), himself something of an eccentric inventor, to find out how to open the egg. This leads her to a mysterious portal that leads her to a parallel world and the four realms, which her mother used to rule. There she meets Philip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), a captain of the royal guard, who guides her through the four realms and the complicated politics of the region. There is the Land Of Snowflakes, presided over by Shiver (Richard E Grant); the Land Of Flowers, presided over by Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez); The Land Of Sweets, presided over by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley); and The Land Of Amusements, presided over by the wicked, feared, whip cracking Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren).
There is apparently an on-going war between the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is not as sweet and nice as her name would suggest, and Mother Ginger. Clara has to find the key which will open the egg and restore order and harmony to this alternative world. This sets her and Philip off on an adventure in which faces several challenges and dangers.
Foy has a charming presence here as the feisty independent and resilient heroine of the piece. Newcomer Fowora-Knight has a solid presence and there was good chemistry between him and Foy. Knightley chews the scenery as the Sugar Plum Fairy who has her own selfish designs for the kingdom. Freeman brings his usual gravitas and charm to his small role, while Omid Djalil and Jack Whitehall bring plenty of comedic touches to their roles as a pair of hapless palace guards.
The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is a little slow and dull to begin with, and I found it hard to be drawn into the story initially. But the pace certainly picks up in the later stages, especially when the Sugar Plum Fairy creates an army of toy tin soldiers blown up to life size. The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is a colourful fantasy filled with energy and imagination and some eye-popping visual effects, and it has more in common with Tim Burton’s idiosyncratic fantasies like Alice In Wonderland than the original ballet that has inspired the story. There is an extended ballet sequence featuring Misty Copeland that provides a link to the original source material.
Most of the film’s rumoured $100 million budget can be seen on the screen. Superb technical efforts have gone into bringing this parallel world to life through the use of a deliberately saturated colour palette and textures to create a suitably surreal aesthetic. The costumes from Oscar winner Jenny Beaven (Mad Max: Fury Road, etc) are elaborate and striking, while the exquisite production design from Oscar nominated Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception, etc) brings these fantastical kingdoms to life. There is some gorgeous cinematography from Linus Sandgren (La La Land, etc) that complements the impressive visuals.
The Nutcracker And The Four Realms has been directed by two filmmakers with different sensibilities, which results in a film that seems a little uneven tonally. Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, etc) is good with the characters and the emotional beats of the narrative, while Joe Johnston (Jumanji, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, etc) is a dab hand with the special effects, large scale set pieces and blockbuster scope of the film. He did four weeks of reshoots on the film while Hallstrom was unavailable.
The film has been written by first time writer Ashleigh Powell and Oscar winning veteran Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, etc) and is shaped like another typical formulaic Disney princess tale, sure to become another perennial Christmas favourite. However, given some of the darker themes and a few scary moments, this is not exactly a film for the very young. Older teenage girls will embrace the film and its central character though.