Famously, composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky did not enjoy writing The Nutcracker, and remained unsatisfied with it after completion. Disney’s adaptation, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, would not have changed his opinion, and more’s the pity.
The Disney company’s history with The Nutcracker extends back to an unassailable classic of animation history, Fantasia. In a time when the ballet was rarely, if ever, performed by American ballet companies, Fantasia featured six animated segments based on its dances. But this modern adaptation of the 1892 ballet — based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 adaptation (based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 original story) — owes more to a much more recent Disney film.
The audience that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms seems to be reaching for most ardently is the same segment of the tween population that fell head over heels for Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel. But I’m not sure it understands what it takes to grab anyone’s attention.
Four Realms’ story is nothing to write home about, but its real problem is that it doesn’t do enough of the things that made its points of inspiration so successful: It fails to create truly memorable visuals, and it revels in neither music nor dance.
[Ed. note: This review contains mild spoilers for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.]
On its own, substandard plot or character work might not be enough to put Four Realms in a peppermint-scented grave. After all, the original Nutcracker’s two acts have endured for more than 125 years with about enough plot to fill one. Moviegoers expecting The Nutcracker and the Four Realms to follow the story of The Nutcracker ballet will be disappointed, but that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.
In directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston’s version, Clara is the middle child of a nebulously Victorian-age London family that is spending its first Christmas after the death of Clara’s mother, Marie.
Clara, we are shown multiple times — and once, very awkwardly, told — is different. She knows about physics and clockwork. She doesn’t like dancing or doing her hair, and she doesn’t want to do what’s expected of her! Indeed, she is not like other girls, so when her mother’s final Christmas presents to her three children are a dress, a box of toy soldiers, and the key to a magical world of toys and candy brought to life, this is apparently supposed to be an equitable reward for Clara’s perspicacity.
From this family exposition, Clara swiftly falls down the rabbit hole and into a land where it’s always winter and always Christmas. In a series of awkward narrative hops and skips, Clara finds out her mother was a queen here, she is the rightful heir, and she is needed in order to end a war between the three good realms and the Fourth Realm, which has betrayed the others.
Despite the low bar of surpassing The Nutcracker’s plot, the movie struggles with pacing. Just as Clara has come up against her first major obstacle, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms diverts itself into a load of exposition, much of it accomplished in a literal, in-universe pageant about the different Realms — that is, all the ones we don’t actually visit during the film.
It’s a pity that it’s all so extraneous to the story, because it’s also the only part of the movie that’s actually focused on music and dance. No less a performer than Misty Copeland — who is shot in a frustratingly high frequency of close angles that leave her full movements out of frame — arrives to give us an en pointe by en pointe rendition of the war between the Realms.
It’s the closest Four Realms gets to providing the kind of merging of music and movement that is at the heart of Fantasia and the best productions of The Nutcracker. (Tragically, the movie doesn’t even do much that’s interesting with Tchaikovsky’s work, seeming uncomfortable with using it to cover many of its pivotal scenes, but also uncomfortable with remixing it to fit the demands of a modern movie score.) But to the story, it’s a moment of nothing, an entire segment where our heroine appears to forget about her goals as presented because someone told her she was a princess.
That would actually be a good character moment, if the movie hadn’t seemed to have forgotten it too. Clara’s motivation is often muddied and muddled, unless she’s stating her emotions out loud as she’s having them. Her most important moment of clarity, when she finally deciphers the secret lesson her mother left her, comes off so tritely that it actually wrung laughter from the audience at my screening.
The Four Realms themselves are colorful and varied enough, but the creativity of them feels ripped from other films rather than of its own. A couple of extras from Moulin Rouge here, an Effie Trinket dress there. If the movie has a central visual motif, it could be phrased as “too much.” The most original ideas are in the ominous Fourth Realm itself, of course, most notably some clowns who disturbingly pop in and out of each other like Russian nesting dolls and a Mouse King made of a roiling mass of mice in the shape of a man-sized mouse.
I realize that now I’ve described a man-sized mass of rodents, this will be hard to believe, but one of Four Realms’ most noticeable weaknesses is that it lacks the commitment to scaring its audience that is so present in both Fantasia and The Nutcracker. Design-wise, it’s certainly not goth enough for the demographic that buys Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland merchandise. And you’d think Disney would be aware of the winning combination of goths and Christmas on this, the 25th anniversary year of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I walked into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ready and prepared to find it a dirty pleasure. As an orchestra kid, a Fantasia fan and a middle-school devotee of the most overwrought tracks in the Christmas discography of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, it seemed safe to assume I could find a bright light at the end of the tree tunnel. But if I had one piece of advice for moviegoers this Christmas season, it’s that if you want to go see The Nutcracker, see the real thing.