Thursday, November 15, 2018

Movie Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston.
Written by: Ashleigh Powell suggest by the short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and the ballet by Marius Petipa.
Starring: Mackenzie Foy (Clara), Keira Knightley (Sugar Plum), Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Stahlbaum), Jayden Fowora-Knight (Phillip), Tom Sweet (Fritz), Ellie Bamber (Louise), Morgan Freeman (Drosselmeyer), Helen Mirren (Mother Ginger), Eugenio Derbez (Hawthorne), Richard E. Grant (Shiver), Misty Copeland (Ballerina Princess), Anna Madeley (Marie Stahlbaum).
When you take on a story like The Nutcracker – which has been told countless times before – you have to try and figure out what, if anything, different you can do with the story. If you’re just going to retell the same story again, than what is the point of doing it at all? Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms attempts to take the original story, and do something different with it – you have to give it that – but ultimately what it concocts it a pretty, hollow shell of a movie. It wants to be classical in its story, but also add the glossy, CGI sheen that Tim Burton has brought to movies like Alice in Wonderland, but the result doesn’t really work. There are good elements here to be sure – the costuming is mostly great and Keira Knightley is a blast as Sugar Plum Fairy, but the film never settles on what it wants to be. It is too complicated for its own good, and yet all that complication adds nothing to the depth of the film. It isn’t surprising that the film is credited to two different directors – who didn’t work on the film at the same time (the original director Lasse Hallstrom, wasn’t available for reshoots, so Joe Johnston stepped in) as the film doesn’t feel like anyone involved really had a vision of what the finished product should be.
The movie keeps the old time setting of The Nutcracker, and continues to focus on a little girl named Clara (Mackenzie Foy, who is quite good here). It’s Christmas, but she is sad because of the recent death of her mother. Yet, her father (Matthew Macfadyen) still insists on going to the lavish Christmas party being thrown by Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). It’s while there, that Clara is led into a magical land – that reminded me a little or Narnia – a world she discovers her mother was the Queen of. It has been split into four Realms – one for flowers, one for snowflakes, one for candy and one for amusements. It’s this last land which is the problem – led by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), it is in open revolt, at war with the rest of the Realms. Clara’s guide to this is Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) – the Nutcracker, I guess. The story involves a complicated quest to get a key – one that will open the last Christmas gift her mother left Clara, but will also help the other Realms protect themselves from Mother Ginger. Oh, were it only that simple.
There is a lot of CGI in the film – the Mouse King here is literally a giant mouse made of thousands of little mice working together for example, and there are some amusing clowns in the world of Amusements, that act as Russian nesting dolls in their acts. And life sized toy soldiers come to life. They always feel like CGI though – that same high gloss, high sheen CGI looks that screams fake. The costumes look great though – you have to give the film that.
And you also have to acknowledge the greatness of what Keira Knightley does here as Sugar Plum Fairy. She has a high pitched, squeaky innocent voice, a wicked smile and laugh, and she’s clearly having the time of her life playing this role. And it is a great performance – in the first half, and after the twist in the second half, it gets even better (even if the transition to each half doesn’t make much sense).  This is one of those performances that almost makes the movie worth watching by itself. Almost.
Perhaps, I am being too hard of the film. It is made for children after all – and my two girls (seven and four) both quite liked the film (I was worried the four-year-old was too young – and she may have been a touch, but not much – no trauma has been done). There is a tribute to the ballet roots of the story in the film – and over the end credits – and that works better than the rest of the movie. So, for them, the movie worked. But it’s not really all that good either. It’s more the type of film you throw on Netflix during Christmas to distract the kids as you get the thousand things done that you need to during the season, than something you’ll actually enjoy.

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