The Nutcracker ballet is a longstanding holiday tradition. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky back in 1892, countless theaters and ballet companies around the world mount productions of The Nutcracker every year. So it’s no surprise Disney wanted to get a piece of that public domain action. While the Tchaikovsky music was never apiece with previous animated Disney classics that have become an open mine for unending live-action remakes, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms taps into a similar kind of collective nostalgia with its (very) loose adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a fantastical amalgamation of what has come before. One part The Chronicles of Narnia, one part Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and one part The Nutcracker ballet (complete with an updated score arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s iconic music by James Newton Howard), and with a dash of Hugo thrown in for good measure.
Mackenzie Foy (Murph in Interstellar) makes for a wide-eyed, determined, and charming Clara, the teenaged girl with an engineer’s mind and a grieving family. Clara’s mother, Marie, has died, leaving behind three children and a bereft husband (Matthew MacFadyen, playing the kind of bumbling, emotionally stunted character he does so well). Marie’s absence lingers heavily over the narrative as the family prepares to celebrate their first Christmas without her. She gifts the kids posthumously with one last present each. For Clara, it is a locked egg sculpture, sans the key that opens it.
The mystery of the egg leads Clara to another world: The Four Realms. Once there, she learns that her mother ruled over the land alongside four other monarchs, one from each realm: The Land of the Flowers, The Land of Snowflakes, The Land of Sweets, and The Land of Amusements—er, scratch that last one. We’re calling it the Fourth Realm now as its leader, Mother Ginger (a delightfully over-the-top pirate played by Helen Mirren), has gone rogue. This information is mostly relayed to Clara via her aggressively friendly co-ruler: the saccharine-sweet Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley, hamming it up). One unnecessary makeover later, Clara is embracing her role as a princess of the realms.
For a clever girl, Clara is not very curious about the cultures or logistics of the land she now co-rules over. It doesn’t help that, per Nutcracker ballet tradition, the protagonist learns about the world through a series of dances presented to her in a pageant. Perhaps dance is not the best format for relaying demographic statistics or the GDP of a realm. Here, the movie indulges in its only formal representation of the ballet from which it hails… to uneven results. (There is a much better dance sequence during the end credits.)
As an art form developed for the stage, dance is difficult to represent on film, but the Nutcracker manages to make it interesting by the final sequence in its staging: the dance of the Mouse King. The camera drops to the floor, catching close-ups of the dancer’s feet as she tries to dodge her rodent assailants. The camera sets up in the middle of the attacking mice, as they move around us. We are part of the action, and so are they—integral to this world for a moment in a way the pageantry of the previous dances made this reality feel artificial and distant.
The impressive execution of the fantastical rodentia continues outside the world of ballet in one of the film’s most clever and effective CGI visuals. Clara meets the Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight) when she first enters into The Four Realms. Young, strapping, and ever-loyal, Nutcracker soldier Phillip is by her side when the mice who have stolen the key that would unlock her mother’s egg assemble into a moving amalgamation of mice known as The Rat King. They aim to capture Clara and bring her to Mother Ginger, but Clara’s new Nutcracker friend pledges to keep her safe.
You might be able to work out what happens next just from the information I’ve given you, but the chief joys of this movie don’t lie in its formulaic plot. They lie in the film’s sumptuous set and costume design. The film moves from sequence to sequence on the strength of its aesthetic wonder, almost as if you are watching a feature film made entirely of Tumblr-based gifs and mood boards.
There is an embrace of the feminine and the pretty in the world-building not unlike the recent A Wrinkle in Time. In The Four Realms, makeup is applied heavy-handedly (on all genders), Clara has a different gorgeous outfit for every occasion, and have I mentioned there is a Land of the Flowers? Past that, all of the major players in this world are women, on both sides of the hero-villain divide.
It’s nice to see a female protagonist whose strength is a scientific mind, as well as a story that is based on a mother handing down knowledge and power to her daughter, rather than a father to son or even father to daughter. Clara is trying to find her place in the world without her mother. It’s interesting to make Clara’s venturing into the Four Realms a metaphor for grief and the confusion that can accompany it, but the film doesn’t fully pull it off, perhaps because, as a holiday family film, it is unwilling to completely sink into the messy rawness of grief.
The character motivations are uneven, and the script doesn’t spend enough time hammering out the logic of The Four Realms. At one point, we learn that Clara’s mother gave life to the toys that now make up the citizenship of this world, which makes her more of a god than a ruler. It’s unclear how much time she spent in this world, and why she never told her family back home about it. Marie could have been a maniacal god, for all we know. (We’ll save that reveal for the sequel.)
In the original Nutcracker ballet, it’s unclear if the world of the Nutcracker even exists, or if it was only in Clara’s dreams. This kind of ambiguousness adds a wonder, mystery, and magic to the story. The film adaptation sacrifices those things in exchange for a more concrete understanding of the fantasy realm, but doesn’t do the world-building legwork to make it worth the trade.
Still, there is magic in this tale—not so much in the familiar narrative, but in the holiday pageantry of it all. Much like the golden egg Marie gifts to Clara this particular Christmas, you’ll find the wonder of this filmic experience lies not in the redundant, derivative wisdom it imparts, but in the ferocious energy that has been put into the aesthetic journey. Is there anything more Christmas-y than that?