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Saturday, November 03, 2018

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Can we all just be honest with ourselves, and admit that there will never be a successful filmed version of The Nutcracker?  I simply don't think the story lends itself to the cinema all that well.  Granted, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms makes an admirable effort.  It's beautiful to watch at times, and there are quite a few gorgeous costumes on display.  But the story is loopy, and it's just not that much fun to watch, other than a few curious moments that kind of stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the film.

I have seen the story of The Nutcracker interpreted numerous ways.  I've seen the ballet performed live twice on two different school field trips growing up, I've seen a filmed version of the ballet with Macaulay Culkin, I've seen numerous animated versions, and I've even seen one that managed to squeeze in Nathan Lane playing Albert Einstein, and an army of evil mice depicted like Nazis. (And that was a thing, let me tell you.) Now, here is this movie, which treats the story as a fantasy spectacle about war, betrayal and friendship.  It's not that I don't think this idea could work, it's just that the film itself feels rather scattered.  If you look into the behind the scenes story, you can kind of see why.  The film has two credited directors, Lasse Hallstrom (A Dog's Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger).  Apparently, Hallstrom was initially the sole director, and Johnston was brought on for extensive reshoots, and to add more special effects and action to the film.  So, that explains why the movie at times feels like a quiet fantasy, and at other moments a bloated CG spectacle.  The pieces that make up the narrative don't mesh, and the movie feels somewhat truncated, as if there was a lot of ideas left on the editing room floor.

The film kicks off by introducing us to its heroine Clara (Mackenzie Foy), an inventive young girl who likes to hang out in the attic of her house and work on little mechanical creations.  She spends a lot of time in the world of invention and dreams as a way to cope with the recent loss of her mother.  Her grieving and eternally glum-faced father (Matthew Mcfadyen) pulls her back to reality when he makes her attend the Christmas party of her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, cashing a paycheck in a role that is essentially a glorified cameo).  At the party, Clara hopes that Drosselmeyer can explain a gift that her late mother left behind for her - a mysterious golden jewel egg that can only be opened with a key that she cannot find.  All that accompanied the gift was a note stating that it contained everything Clara would ever need in life.  Drosselmeyer cannot help her find the key, but later, Clara finds a mysterious golden string that leads her down a dark and forgotten hallway within the house, and ends up in a fantasy world that is made out of four Realms that are close to being at war with one another.

Shortly after entering this strange, alternate world, she is befriended by a living nutcracker soldier named Phillip (likable newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), who informs Clara that her mother was once the Queen of this world, and everyone has been awaiting her return so that she can restore the Realms to peace.  Clara is officially now the Princess of the Four Realms, and Phillip sends her to an ornate castle to meet her followers and subjects, which include the ruler of the Flower Realm (Eugenio Derbez), the ruler of the Snow Realm (Richard E. Grant), and the Sugarplum Fairy (Keira Knightley).  The ruler of the fourth Realm is Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who is the one causing all the trouble in this world, and is threatening to conquer the other realms with her army of mice.  In order to save her mother's world, Clara must lead an army to find the golden key that can open the jeweled egg in her possession, and supposedly can also save the four Realms from destruction.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has been beautifully visualized, but the plotting and writing by Ashleigh Powell never quite comes together.  There are a number of sequences throughout the film that simply don't thrill like they're supposed to.  One example includes a scene where Clara and Phillip must do battle with a swarm of mice that join together to form one giant mouse.  It's a neat effect, but it doesn't have any tension or wonder, so it basically becomes a very expensive tech demo.  There is also just a lack of weight to the entire enterprise.  There are no high stakes, and no sense that Clara and her friends are ever in any real danger.  Not even a third act twist can add much to the plot.  I admired how it tried to take the story in a new direction, but it just doesn't excite like it should.  It simply leads to more mundane and underwhelming "thrills".

This is simply an odd movie that just doesn't work like it should.  Clearly an effort is being made, but it never manages to create a worthwhile experience.  Of the actors, many are likeable, but they just don't do much to stand out.  The sole exception is Keira Knightley, who seems to be relishing playing the Sugarplum Fairy in a manner that is kind of girly with an insane edge to it.  At times, she almost seems to be channeling the performance of Carol Kane playing the fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Present in 1988's Bill Murray comedy, Scrooged.  There's a bit of an unhinged air to her performance, and I liked the little touches, such as how at one moment she can't help but grab off a piece of her cotton candy-like hair and eat it.  I have a feeling if the rest of the movie had her kind of manic or fun energy, it might have worked out a little better.

There is some imagination on display here, but unfortunately it all went into the visuals, and not into the storytelling, which is trite and dull.  There are some nice images, a beautifully choreographed dance sequence or two, a lot of wasted potential, and an overall sense of what were they thinking when they were dreaming this up.

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