Let me get out of the way at the outset that this week’s “Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is not a great movie by any standards. The writing veers between childish and obvious to overly dramatic. The characters are thinly drawn, and the plot is only barely thought out.
That said, the movie is fun and makes for an entertaining hour and half that you can take the kids to and not feel as though you’ve completely wasted your time.
Too often during the holiday season, it feels like these kinds of movies are either too dark and edgy, as if the filmmakers are trying to prove their bona fides by thumbing their nose at convention, or the movies are treacly and stupid, made for preschoolers by people with no ability to tell the difference.
This movie tells a tale with scope, but not so much scope that you are asked to consider anything further than the credits. There are stakes, and even a moment or two that are legitimately a little scary. The filmmakers have wisely chosen not to include a whole host of goofy magical creatures, which I’m sure was a temptation considering the fairy tale feel of the film. Not great, true, but this “Nutcracker” is solid and balanced.
The movie opens with a pretty cool tracking shot of an owl flying through turn-of-the-century London before alighting outside the home of Clara Stahlbaum, an inquisitive young lady with the mind of an engineer. There is a pall of sadness over the family after the death of their mother, Marie (this is a Disney movie, after all. Can’t have two living parents.) But, owing to her father’s need to keep up appearances, the entire clan, including Clara’s sister and brother, make their way to a fabulous Christmas party at the home of Morgan Freeman’s Godfather character.
Not like a “sleep with the fishes” kind of Godfather, but more in the fairy vein — although he didn’t seem to be magical so much as whimsical. Freeman’s character is a good example of the problems with this movie. He’s entertaining enough, though his presence and position in this era of London doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Eye-patched, wealthy, and American, not to mention black, I was dying to know a little of his back story, but “Nutcracker” never offers anything up.
Regardless, Godfather gives Clara the present of a ticket into the land of Four Realms, where three of the realms, those of Flowers, Sweets, and Snowflakes, are warring with the Land of Amusements, the banished fourth realm. The cause for this war is vague, and the particulars fall apart pretty quickly when you consider them in relation to the rest of the plot, but ignoring all that, the filmmakers manage to make the Land of Amusements a legitimately scary place, with roiling mouse kings and creepy clowns.
Gradually, it is revealed that Clara’s mother, Marie, was the queen and founder of this magical world, and news of her death throws things into chaos. Mother Ginger, played by Helen Mirren, leader of the fourth realm, appears to be bent on the domination of the other three realms, leading Clara and the other leaders to a desperate solution.
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is loosely based on ideas from the famous ballet, and I imagine many people are going to criticize this film for not including enough recognizable Nutcracker content.
I couldn’t tell if this was supposed to be an adaptation, a continuation, or simply a side story to the original. There is a little bit of dancing in the film, as well as over the credits, and, as much as I don’t really care for the classic ballet, there were a few moments of modern dance interpretation of the music that I thought were really interesting.
I’d like to see an update of the dance, somehow. In the end, though, I think the inclusion of Nutcracker elements is simply a way to graft something recognizable on what is, essentially, a Narnia-lite retread. It’s lucky the cast is charming and the effects well-done or else “Four Realms” could be insufferable.
As it is, the movie is a nice little diversion from an otherwise busy season. Nothing wrong with that. Grade: B
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is rated PG for mild scares and mild violence.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.