“Christmas comes whether we like it or not,” says Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen) to his daughter Clara (Mackenzie Foy). She’s grieving the recent death of her beloved mother. “It’s important to enjoy it,” her father says, “that’s what’s expected of us.” But Clara says, “I don’t care what’s expected of us.” She’s an independent young woman as we discover in this Disney Christmas extravaganza, set in Victorian London.
What’s inside the mysterious egg-shaped box Clara’s mother left for her? What did her mother mean when she wrote “Everything you need is inside”? Where is the key that opens the magical egg? For answers, see “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
Mackenzie Foy is brave heroine, Clara, who knows the laws of physics and how to fix broken machines. As Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer — nicely played by Morgan Freeman — says, when Clara repairs a mechanical toy, “Clever girl, I knew you could do it!” Ellie Bamber plays Clara’s older, more proper sister, Louise, who tries, unsuccessfully, to restrain her adventurous sibling. Matthew Macfadyen is the sisters’ widowed father. Tom Sweet is Fritz, their younger brother.
In the Nutcracker parallel world, Kiera Knightley is pink-haired, sometimes squeaky Sugar Plum from Land of Sweets. Helen Mirren is sometimes scary Mother Ginger from Land of Amusements. Other denizens of the Four Realms are Richard E. Grant as Shiver from Land of Snow and Eugenio Derbez as Hawthorne from Flower Realm. Jayden Fowora-Knight is brave soldier, Captain Phillip, Clara’s loyal guide through the Four Realms.
In “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, the greatest pleasures are visual — sets, costumes, make-up, and hair-dos are over the top and, often, quite lovely. The brief dance episodes — a third of the way through and during the closing credits — are beautifully performed. Misty Copeland is the prima-ballerina, dancing to Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. The story and script, however, by Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy, suggested by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story and Tchaikovsky’s ballet, is problematic. Most seriously, what begins as a magical quest — Clara’s search for the golden key to unlock her mother’s mysterious gift — abruptly becomes something else, 180 degrees different, and unmotivated. To describe what it becomes would be a spoiler. It spoiled the rest of the movie for me.
Rated PG for some mild peril, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” runs 99 minutes. Watch for visual references to Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940), a bit of beautiful dancing (stay for the credits), and a lot of mice.
“Nutcracker and the Four Realms”:
Plucky Clara’s Christmas quest;
Flawed story; needs more dance;
Pretty to look at; forget the rest.