Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

When I learned that Disney was making a movie based on "The Nutcracker," I did some research to become more acquainted with the original fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffman. That research may have gotten in the way my future enjoyment of the movie. Then again, I'm not sure there's much in it for adults to enjoy regardless of how much they know about the original story. That said, I think I may have liked it if I saw it as a kid even though it would not have been one of my favorites because I'm a sucker for stories about girls who journey to fantasy worlds and discover that they're princesses. It has the same sort of whimsical charm as The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, but without the emotion or heart that would have made it a true classic.

By far, the movie's greatest strength is its visuals. This film has one of the most beautiful posters I've ever seen, filled with varying shades of pink, lavender, teal, and blue with the characters blossoming into view like a flower. I was amazed by the way Clara's party dress seemed to shift from periwinkle to lavender in the trailer depending on the lighting, and the Sugar Plum Fairy's pink cotton candy hair and puffy multi-layered gown detailed with frills, sequins, and embroidery was just as stunning on the big screen as Clara's other elaborate princess dresses. Before I saw the movie, I was teased with tantalizing concept art showcasing the Lands of Snowflakes, Flowers, and Sweets as well as interviews stating that the movie mainly used practical sets instead of CGI. However, it turned out that these impressive sets made from real flowers and candy were only actually on screen for a few seconds that had already been spoiled by the trailer. The majority of the movie was set in mundane snow-covered forests, or enclosed in the mechanical-looking palace, allowing little time to enjoy the impressive scope of the whimsical man-made sets.

Of course, a movie can't sustain itself on visuals alone. When it comes to the story, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms truly misses the mark. It's an embarrassment that E.T.A. Hoffman received a credit at the end of the movie because it had virtually nothing to do with the story he wrote. It tries to present itself as a messy sequel to his version in the same vein as the live-action 2018 Little Mermaid movie by making Clara the daughter of Marie Stahlbaum from the Hoffman story, but it fails to do even that properly because it changes too much of Marie's backstory. If Marie had married the Nutcracker like in the original fairy tale, that would make him Clara's father in this movie, which he definitely is not. In The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Marie was a genius inventor who created a machine that brought toys to life and used it to fill the four magical realms with whimsical inhabitants who worshipped her as their queen, making Clara their princess. In the original story, Marie was a badass who saved the Nutcracker from the Mouse King, which would have a much more interesting backstory for Marie, especially considering that the movie was obviously focused on empowering women. Whether it's a physics lesson or an army general you need, Clara can do it all. The Mouse King, who was described in Hoffman's tale as a seven-headed mouse, also could have been an interesting and creative Disney villain, but instead, it was a creepy-looking person created from hordes of regular-sized mice that didn't talk and had a very small overall role in the story.

Calling it The Nutcracker is one of the most problematic aspects of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms because Clara never receives a Nutcracker that comes to life for Christmas, which is pretty much the entire premise of the story. Instead, her recently departed mother leaves her a useless locked music box and a cryptic note that takes someone as smart as Clara way longer than it should have to decipher the true meaning. Clara's quest to find the key for the music box triggers the entire story when it turns out that she would have been better off without it all along. Her brother Fritz does receive a nutcracker as a present from Drosselmeyer, but the scene is presented as more of a gag than anything truly important. When Clara meets the titular character in the fantasy realm, he is already human and introduces himself as Captain Phillip. Clara only identifies him as a "Nutcracker Soldier" because he resembles a Nutcracker ornament her mother gave her in a flashback. He was apparently turned human by Clara's mother before the events of the movie took place. His relation to Drosselmeyer as his nephew from the original story is never mentioned in this version despite their obvious family resemblance. In fact, if Captain Phillip had not been in the movie at all, it would have changed absolutely nothing from the plot.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms pays significantly more tribute to the ballet than it does to the story of "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." It heavily features the music of Tchaikovsky along with an unnecessary dance sequence featuring headlining ballerina Misty Copeland. Characters like Mother Ginger and the Sugar Plum Fairy exist only in the ballet and not the fairy tale. The Tchaikovsky score also features waltzes dedicated to flowers and snowflakes that were probably the inspiration for the realms. Ironically, though, the changes that they made would probably confuse the heck out of children who watch this film before seeing a live performance of the ballet. The biggest twist was one that I had a suspicion might happen because of a pattern from many recent Disney movies, but I was hoping my suspicion was wrong, the recent Disney trope has become so trite that it's more frustrating to watch than it is surprising. It also gives them less time to fully develop their villains because they are not introduced as such until much later. Gone are the days of powerful queens of darkness like Maleficent. Thanks to that eyeroll-worthy twist, many of my biggest issues with this movie parallel my issues with Frozen.

If Disney had stuck a little closer to their source material, they could have easily solved most of the issues that critics had with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. At its core, the classic story of "The Nutcracker" revolves around Marie/Clara's heartfelt relationship with him. In the Hoffman's tale, she scorned the self-centered Princess Pirlipat (who, by the way, would have also made a much more interesting villain than the one they went with) for no longer caring about Drosselmeyer's nephew after he was transformed into an ugly Nutcracker by the mischievous Lady Mouserinks. Most versions portray her nursing the Nutcracker back to health when her brother Fritz carelessly breaks him and later saving him from the wicked Mouse King. The bittersweet and romantic ending of Clara being forced to leave the Nutcracker behind in the fantasy land to be rewarded later with a Chrismas miracle of Drosselmeyer introducing her to his nephew in the real world has been faithfully recreated in both movie and book adaptations of the story, but not in the Disney version. Even though there is a subtle hint of romance between Clara and Captain Phillip, there's no Christmas miracle for her in the end. This version of Clara is a scientist, a martial artist, and an army leader, but the one thing she lacks is something that every Disney Princess should already possess--strength of heart. Disney has finally taken their modern feminist princess trope so far that they have lost the very heart of one of the stories they were trying to retell.


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