What’s exciting about this Disney film is it’s taking a classic and diversifying it.
‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is inspired by the original story ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King‘ by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Written in 1816, Hoffman’s classic is about a young girl called Marie also known as Clara whose favourite Nutcracker toy soldier comes to life, goes to war with a seven-headed mouse, then whisks her away to a land of dolls. Secured in the classical arts world as a ballet paired with Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score, The Nutcracker has a long revered legacy. So a Disney’s reimagining comes with an element of expectation.
This version sees a young girl Clara (Mackenzie Foy) and her siblings trying to appease their forlorn father Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew MacFayden) after the death of their mother. Setting off to an important Christmas Eve party, Clara is at odds with her father who she sees as only concerned with appearances instead of understanding better the needs of his three grieving children. It’s made clear from the start, though Foy’s striking beauty betrays the sentiment, that Clara is the rebellious ‘tomboy‘. Though not called as such, she’s referred to as ‘different‘ compared to her more ‘girlie‘ sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and too young brother ‘Fritz‘ (Tom Sweet).
At the party, Clara has been pre-warned to not disappear by her father, but it’s not long before she finds herself in the comfort of her Godfather ‘Drosselmeyer’s‘ (Morgan Freeman) workshop. It’s in this moment we see that Drosselmeyer has encouraged Clara’s interests in science and the mechanics of things. She tells him about an odd gift her mother has left her, he hints at what’s to come. Then after an intricate Christmas present hunting game, Clara is off on an out of this world adventure. Passing through a tree from the world she knows into an unknown realm after an encounter with a cheeky mouse, she meets ‘Captain Phillip‘ (Jayden Fowora-Knight) a soldier who accompanies her on her journey. As Captain Phillip reveals to Clara her legacy, we are soon introduced to Kiera Knightley’s ‘Sugarplum‘, Helen Mirren’s ‘Mother Ginger‘ and a tale of trickery, good vs. bad and a few hijinks in between.
What works about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, is Disney’s ability to bring magic to the big screen. A simple tale with likeable characters and vivid visuals. Foy is charming as Clara. Fowora-Knight in his feature debut shows wonderful promise. It is something to note that he’s potentially the first, kind of, Black Disney Prince. Though there’s barely a hint of anything you’d call romance between the two, he’s by Clara’s side throughout most of the film, and for those who are hopeless romantics, there’s enough for the imagination to wonder if. Knightley is brilliant as Sugarplum down to the bittersweet end. There’s also a nice moment where African American ballerina Misty Copeland as ‘Ballerina Princess‘ gets to show off her groundbreaking talent.
However, for all that it wants to be, there’s a little missing from this rework. I possibly wanted to see more ballet. Maybe The Nutcracker and the Four Realms could have/should have been a musical? A little more Beauty and the Beast (2017) and less Narnia/Harry Potter/Maleficent. It warranted more dance and song. Maybe it’s unfair but precisely because of The Nutcracker’s aforementioned roughly 125 year legacy as a ballet, it’s hard not to expect. Copeland could easily have had a few plot evolving dances throughout the film which would have upped its magical tone quite a bit.
The story itself seemed a little too straightforward. Even the twists were a little predictable and the sense of urgency was a little muted, all things considered. With the push to create leading ladies whether, in ye olde worlde or modern times who aren’t simpering waifs waiting to be saved, there’s been a lean towards characters who are sometimes too cool for school. Clara barely batted an eyelid when she stepped into a whole new world and learned she was a princess! Also, with this ‘don’t need no man or a prince to survive’ narrative though it was wonderful to see a British Black boy co-leading a blockbuster Disney film I couldn’t help wondering if there was a reluctance to draw more of a romantic theme between Clara and Captain Phillip because of the wont to show Clara’s independence or was there an issue because of his race? Fowora-Knight was wonderful to watch, but his character seemed slightly underused. Though I felt the same about Mirren’s, Mrs. Ginger.
But, I must say, sitting in a room filled with adult critics, watching a film for children I did chuckle at the irony. Reviewing a children’s film as an adult seems almost unfair. The proof will come from the children who go to see it, and from that perspective, this film will be a hit. It has all the wonders of Disney peppered with just enough modernisms to keep them off their devices and lose themselves in a beautiful fairytale.
*Regarding the casting of Fowora-Knight, Misty Copeland, Meera Syal, and Morgan Freeman, it’s encouraging to say the least. For too long children’s films have been very white. Whether period piece or modern. Even in animations, it wasn’t until The Princess and the Frog (2009 – Disney’s 49th animated feature) that we were gifted a Black Disney princess, and even then there was no thought to give her a matching prince. Thank goodness for another Disney offering, this year’s Ava DuVernay directed ‘A Wrinkle in Time‘. As a parent who has sat through many a kids film with little to none representation for my daughter, nieces and nephews I’m really hoping more children of colour get their own storylines in big features. Looking forward to the announced Disney production of ‘Sadé‘ an African princess, who has to save her kingdom, to be directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope).
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Director(s): Lasse Hallström | Joe Johnston
Screenwriter(s): Ashleigh Powell
Cast: Jayden Fowora-Knight, Morgan Freeman, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Mackenzie Foy, Richard E. Grant, Kiera Knightley, Helen Mirren
UK release date: Friday 2nd November 2018