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The production of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is one of those that tends to inspire trepidation in the final product. The original film was written by Ashleigh Powell and directed by Lasse Hallström back in 2016. Then, a year later, reshoots were done, but said reshoots were written by a entirely different writer, Tom McCarthy, and directed by an entirely different director, Joe Johnston. Now, almost exactly two years after everything got started, the final product is here, and is just as disjointed and chaotic as you might expect, but somehow, it's also fun.
If you're familiar with the popular ballet that comes back around every Christmas, or the story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King on which it is based, then many elements of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms will sound familiar. Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is the middle child of the Stahlbaum family. Her mother has recently passed away, which is hard on everybody, but especially now because it's Christmas time. Attending the annual Christmas party of her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), Clara hopes to find a key to a gift her mother left her before she died, but in following a ribbon to the gift her godfather has left her, she enters into a mysterious fantasy world consisting of four realms: one of flowers; one of snowflakes; one of sweets, and; one of amusements. She quickly befriends a Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she has a much greater connection to this world than she could have guessed, and also that the four realms need her help.
All of the individual pieces of the Nutcracker story you know are here. There's a Sugar Plum Fairy, played with a level of mania I would have never thought possible from Keira Knightley. There's a mouse king, plus Mother Ginger and her massive skirts. While the pieces are there, they go together in an entirely new, and most bizarre way. Which is not to say the story isn't utterly predictable, because it is. What passes for twists in the story are the most predictable of tropes, so much so that you'll be shocked the characters themselves didn't see them coming.
It's fairly clear that extensive reshoots drastically changed what The Nutcracker and the Four Realms was going to be, and that the final cut falls somewhere between whatever the movie was and whatever it was later decided it should be.
Visually, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn't bring much new to the table. While there are, according to the title, four realms, we get to see very little of most of them, and the one we do spend most of our time in is, for plot reasons, fairly rundown. As such, most of what we see comes in varying shades of brown and grey, though it certainly does make the visuals pop when we do get something else.
And yet, there's something about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms that I absolutely enjoyed. While the story may be inspired by the Nutcracker, it has more in common with The Wizard of Oz or Labyrinth in its design and structure. It's a fairy tale brought to life. Does Clara ever question anything about her scenario or how such a place as this ever came to be? No. Would a child's favorite fairy tale ever bother answering such questions? Of course not. Everything just is. Accept it. Move on.
Our lead actors handle themselves well, while Fowora-Knight comes across a little stiff, that's likely more a style choice due the fact that he's supposed to be a wooden Nutcracker brought to life, though visually he just comes across as a soldier. Mackenzie Foy has the screen presence to bring the audience along for the ride.
The most enjoyable performances come from Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger and Keira Knightley as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Both seem to have a clear understanding of the odd movie they've found themselves in, but use that as a license to have as much fun as possible. Mirren gets some of the best action scenes in the film. Knightley voices her entire role in a register so high you'd think a balloon was leaking air.
For many, any reference to the Nutcracker will conjure up strains of the iconic ballet score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Fans of the ballet need not be alarmed as the score to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is given a significant boost thanks to Tchaikovsky's music. It's sprinkled liberally throughout the film, including some unique arrangements that add new twists to the familiar pieces, which might actually keep you from realizing that you're even hearing music you know.
The audience will also be treated to a short trip to the ballet as one sequence in the middle of the film gives us some backstory via dance. Unfortunately, it seems somebody didn't feel like the ballet could stand on its own, as the beautiful dancing is regularly interrupted by expository dialogue. Didn't anybody tell these people not to talk during the ballet? There's a second dance sequence over the end credits, however, which is worth sticking around for a few extra minutes.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is not going to become an instant Christmas classic. If it outlives its release at all, it will likely be as a cult classic that we discover 10 years from now that everybody has somehow seen at one time or another.