“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”

 

            The casting is just right.  Clara, played by Mackenzie Foy, has a winning combination of youthful innocence and true grit.  And the camera loves her, which doesn't hurt. 

            It starts out dark, and gets darker.  Clara and her sister and younger brother are grieving because it's their first Christmas without their Mum, who's died. 

            Clara has compensated by spending a lot of time in the attic, constructing little science projects where a ball drops which causes a lever to activate a spring---well, you get the idea.  The fact that she's a natural tinkerer, and fascinated with how things work, will be important later in the story.

            Dad (Matthew Macfadyen) has become a sad sack since his wife's death.  But he does insist on the family still participating in certain Christmas traditions, like decorating a tree and going to a party. The setting is turn-of-the-century England, think fancy carriages and formal gowns and gentrified nobility.

            Dad gives the children their presents on Christmas Eve.  Clara's sister gets one of her mother's nice dresses to wear to the party.  Little brother gets a nutcracker soldier.  Clara receives an oval-shaped jewelry box which she can't open, along with a note that says everything she needs is inside.

            When Clara steps outside, there's a long string with her name on it, so she follows it---all the way up through the roof and under some sort of underground bridge which leads her to a gate, and when she steps outside the gate she's suddenly in a different world, where it's snowing, and everything is in bright colors.  It feels like a nod to C.S. Lewis, with the children stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.

            Clara first meets a soldier, a Captain named Philip who becomes her escort into this parallel world.  She's trying to find the key to open her jewelry box, but a mouse steals it, which leads her and the Captain on a chase into an enchanted forest.

            Clara is told that three realms are benign: The lands of Snowflakes, flowers, and sweets.  But the fourth realm, presided over by the Tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), is where Clara must find the key she needs. 

            So we have “Nutcracker” music and some ballet, but we're really not trying to re-tell that story.  In fact, the Nutcracker soldiers are really more like a droid army in the “Star Wars” series: ominous and robotic. 

            Yes, we have a nod to all the Disney princesses who gather together to make sure it's not always about some strong male to swoop in and save them.  Female empowerment meets princess pride.

            Clara learns that she needn't worry about her family wondering where she is; time stands still on the other side while Clara is having her parallel world adventures.

            Clara learns that her Mother used to be the Queen of the Four Realms, and everything was in harmony, but now there's tension and unhappiness, which they all hope Clara can cure for them.  Sometimes being a princess comes with huge expectations.

            So, will Clara find her key and restore harmony to the netherworld, while still being able to return to the Christmas party to dance with her father?  Well, it is Disney, you know.  Happily ever after is our stock in trade.

            A visually delightful film that's whimsical and witty, and just inconsistent enough to make it enchantingly flawed and compellingly vulnerable. 

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association