Film review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, November 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a holiday film that falls far short of its iconic namesake.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: It’s hard to believe that in all these years of turning over every rock for new Christmas entertainment to market, no major American studio had ever released a big-budget film based on the perennially beloved ballet, The Nutcracker. Now that Disney finally has, you may wish it had waited a little longer to come up with something more worthy.

Parts of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (rated PG for a few scary images and brief, minor language) will no doubt score with the young girls and their mothers the movie hopes to target. There are snow-globe worthy backdrops of Victorian England and costuming that will set sugarplum fairies dancing through many tiny heads. But the plot is a muddle. It’s stuffed fuller than a Christmas stocking with fantasyland clichés that make its magical world feel like everywhere and nowhere at once.

Our heroine, Clara, doesn’t give a fig for dresses, hair bows, dollies, and all that other girly stuff. Like Disney’s recent rewrite of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, she’s interested in cogs and wheels. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. But rather than feeling integral to her personality, this rejection of common feminine interests simply seems like shorthand for noble character. It’s quite an ironic cheat given that, like Belle, Clara looks nothing like a tomboy. Her doll-like face, hair, and dresses are no doubt designed to appeal to many little girls watching.

Before Clara’s mother dies, she gives her a jewel-encrusted mechanical egg containing a treasure that will supposedly provide Clara everything she will need in life.  

Do I still need to issue a spoiler warning if many of you can guess what the egg contains? If so, consider yourself warned. It’s a mirror. So what we have is yet another believe-in-yourself moral.   

It’s such a feel-good, almost universally applauded theme, the screenwriters apparently didn’t see the need to work particularly hard at tying it to the barely sketched-out plot. And to be fair, to a certain extent, it’s good to teach children that God created them capable of far more than they usually realize. Teaching them that all the answers to life’s biggest challenges and questions lie within their own hearts is something else.

But the movie’s worst crime may be how much all of this self-empowerment shrugs off the story, not to mention the music and dancing, that have enchanted audiences for generations.

Once Clara travels to the Four Realms her mother invented, we see almost nothing more specific or imaginative than the drawings on a Candyland board and little that relates to the original ballet. With the exception of the mouse king, there’s nothing in the four realms of winter, flowers, sweets, and amusement that surprises us. We don’t even get much nostalgic delight—the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” come in just long enough for us to go, “Nooooo!” as they fade back out again.

One lovely, far-too-short sequence featuring ballerina Misty Copeland offers a sad glimpse into what the movie could have been if Disney had wanted to make something beautiful that honored its source material rather than just a modern, seasonal cash-grab. Copeland’s performance, full of grace and beauty, is a marvel to behold and alone worth the price of admission. And it goes to prove that, Yes, Disney, you can like dancing, dresses, and stereotypically girlish things and still be a strong woman.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Laurie Sparham/Disney via AP) This image released by Disney shows Keira Knightley, left, and Mackenzie Foy in a scene from “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”

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