The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

Lindsay and I already discussed our reactions to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in the Mainlining Christmas Podcast, but I wanted to cover a few aspects we omitted. Apologies in advance for anything redundant.

Speaking of redundancy... we talked briefly about comparisons between Four Realms and the 1979 stop-motion special, The Nutcracker Fantasy, but it's worth noting the similarities are more than superficial. Both movies lean in heavily to Wonderland parallels, they incorporate ballet in a similar fashion, they make heavy use of clockwork imagery, and even use some of the same color pallets. I'm not sure if this is a case of them drawing from like sources or if Four Realms was partially inspired by Fantasy, but it's certainly notable.

The story of Nutcracker and the Four Realms differs from any source material I'm familiar with. Clara, the film's protagonist, is mourning the death of her mother, Marie, along with her family. This is something of a Pandora's box, since the identity of the lead in the ballet is alternatively called "Clara" or "Marie," depending on the production. The movie is essentially referencing that by insinuating that a version of the story unfolded around Marie in the past, with Clara now following in her late mother's footsteps. This allows the movie to sort of function simultaneously as a sequel and adaptation of the source material.

Drosselmeyer, here reimagined as somehow both Clara's godfather and Marie's adoptive father, sends Clara into the Four Realms. This streamlines quite a bit of the original story, since he does this instead of giving her the nutcracker doll (her brother actually receives this in a brief aside). Clara's gift is a magic key that's stolen away by a mouse before she reaches it.

There's a bit of action that resolves with her failing to get the key, briefly encountering the apparent villains Mother Ginger and the Mouse King, and of course meeting up with the Nutcracker captain (note he's a captain in this, not a prince). They head to the castle in the center of the Four Realms to meet the last significant character, Sugarplum, and to get some backstory.

The Sugarplum fairy is played by Keira Knightley, who seems to be having the time of her life in the role. Clara learns her mother discovered the Four Realms and created a machine to bring its denizens to life. But the McGuffin that operates the machine (the key she was trying to get earlier) is now in the hands of Mother Ginger, the matriarch of the renegade realm.

And if you're four, maybe you buy all that, but anyone older probably noticed Sugarplum is a mite too ready to send Clara into harm's way to get the key. Plus, the supposedly villainous mice are freaking adorable, and this is a Disney movie, after all.

Still, Clara and the Nutcracker prince captain head back to the foggy lands and lose their army in an abandoned amusement park that's virtually identical to the one in the Dark Tower movie. They get split up, but Clara winds up getting taken to Mother Ginger's steampunk mech, which...

Sorry for the brief aside, but if we could get more steampunk mechs in Christmas movies, I'd be a much happier person.

Anyway, she meets Mother Ginger, played by Helen Mirren, and eventually manages to steal the key without noticing Ginger is being a little creepy but not at all evil. She returns to the castle, gives the key to Sugarplum, and is shocked to discover the fairy's the real villain. Yeah, it turns out what really happened was...

Uh... Actually, the movie's a little light on details here. I guess she wanted to do evil things, Mother Ginger found out, and Sugarplum convinced the rest of the kingdom Ginger was evil? It would have made far more sense if Sugarplum had accomplices - say, if all the leaders were corrupt - but this makes for a simpler dynamic.

Regardless, Clara and the Nutcracker wind up in jail, and Ginger starts building an army of tin soldiers to take over the Four Realms. Clara escapes with a rope (ostensibly using physics, but she could have just climbed down). She heads for the machine while the Nutcracker goes to warn Ginger and the mice.

The movie's resolution cuts back and forth between a battle with tin soldiers and Clara sabotaging the machine to turn Sugarplum back into a doll. This also deactivates all the soldiers for literally no reason whatsoever. Seriously: it makes less sense here than in The Avengers.

If all of that sounds profoundly stupid... well... it is. The story feels about as generic as kid's fantasy films get, and the details are under-explained. There's very little payoff and even less logic. And, on top of everything else, the resolution feels abrupt and random. We should have gotten a massively complex Rube Goldberg-style system of cause-and-effect put in motion by Clara's brilliant mind. Hell, the movie sets this up in its opening minutes. Instead, she changes a few settings, and the movie ends.

And, despite all that, I still enjoyed this movie quite a bit. It's a mess of a film where the consequences of changing directors halfway through are obvious. But the set pieces, costuming, design work, and cast are enough to forgive all that. Enough for me, anyway - if you're less forgiving of bad writing, your mileage may vary.

I should also acknowledge I may be going soft on this due to its holiday connections. Fantasy Christmas movies like this haven't been made in decades, not at a scale anywhere near this size. And given how poorly Four Realms is faring, it's a good bet this isn't going to have much company anytime soon. Because of this, it's alone among live-action, big-budget fantasy. Well, almost alone: the 2000 live-action Grinch movie cost about the same to produce. But this is far better than that (almost everything is).

Of course, at smaller scales plenty of movies have used Christmas in a similar way. The most obvious example is Babes in Toyland. In some ways, Four Realms is closer to a remake in that property than its own. Both are really adaptations of Oz or Alice that have been reskinned for the holidays. To put it another way, the Christmas elements are highly present in Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but they're more a veneer than anything else. Christmas is a major element in the design, but not the story.

I don't think that's a problem. Using the holidays as set dressing may be superficial, but it's also a good way to breathe new life into an old formula. Sure, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has the same architecture as Burton's Alice in Wonderland, but the Christmas decorations give you something new to experience. And, to be frank, the value of these movies is almost always in the visuals, anyway.

Whether or not you should check this out in theaters depends on what you think of the visuals in the trailers. If you think they're neat, by all means buy a ticket. Otherwise, save your money.

That being said, my thoughts on recommending this change substantially when this transitions from theaters to streaming. While Four Realms isn't a "must see" on the big screen, it's something every genre fan should absolutely check out eventually. The scale alone makes this worth watching next Christmas, once you can do so without spending money or effort.