Friday, November 9, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

(Alternate Title: “A Hard Nut to Crack”)

[Enter to see the Fairy Tale Geek sitting on the couch eating walnuts.  He suddenly sees the reader appear on the scene]


The Nutcracker?  I already did a post on the Nutcracker a couple Christmases back, remember?

Oh, you mean the new movie?  Well, it wasn’t good, if that helps.

More, huh?
Okay, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a new live action Disney fantasy film released this year.  The film focuses on young Clara Stahlbaum who has just lost her mother for undisclosed reasons.  She is given a mechanical egg with no key as a posthumous Christmas gift from her mother and has to set about finding a way to open it.  Later, at a Christmas party thrown by her godfather Droselmeyer (who also happens to be the man who raised her mother), she finds her way into another world where the key is only for it to be taken by a mouse.  From there she discovers that her mother was once queen of this world and meets friends like the Sugarplum Fairy and the Nutcracker Soldier as well as running afoul of Mother Ginger, the ruler of the dark and creepy Fourth Realm.

As far as takes on public domain fantasy stories go, this one feels a little dated.  It feels more like something akin to the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland or Snow White and the Huntsman from almost a decade back.  Most of the story is given over to giving Clara a coming of age narrative and turning her into a borderline action hero.  And while it’s not bad to have a female empowerment fantasy (perish the thought), I was hoping for a little more from it.  Also, like Alice and Snow White in those other movies, Clara’s importance is created in a rather convenient manner.  Only, instead of there being a prophecy with her as the Chosen One, she’s secretly the old queen’s daughter.  Every other character in this movie either gets swallowed up by the production or acts so over-the-top that it seems like they’re afraid they would be if they didn’t command as much attention as possible.  For example, the character of the Nutcracker himself is demoted to more or less the position of Clara’s sidekick and isn’t much more than that.  Meanwhile, the Sugar Plum Fairy portrayed by Keira Knightley chews the scenery so much you’d swear she thought it was actually made of gingerbread.
The tone kind of varies from moment to moment.  One minute it’s more of a bright alternate world fantasy, the next it’s more of a creepy pseudo-Tim Burton thing, the next they’re talking about magical machines that bring toys to life and it feels like something out of the Spy Kids franchise.

I think where the movie really goes off the rails is when they indulge in another more modern Disney-Pixar trope and have a plot twist as to who the real villain is.  I’m not going to reveal who it is, though click HERE if you want the spoiler in music form.  I will tell you that it’s not the Mouse King, the usual villain of the Nutcracker story.  The Mouse King in this version is this big mass of mice that take the form of a giant mouse and his role is decidedly different than it is in any other version of the Nutcracker.

I mean, there are some bright spots.  The ballet scene starring Misty Copeland is very good.  The focus on grief is interesting and does inform the performance of the surprise villain a little bit, though not enough to save that twist.  And, as usual, it’s fun to pick out the nods to the original works.  For example, the Nutcracker is named Capt. Phillip Hoffmann after the original book’s author E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Also, Clara’s mother is named Marie Stahlbaum, which was the name of the Clara character in Hoffmann’s book.  But that’s about it.

You know, maybe I’m on the wrong track, but I don’t really see much value in making Clara nee Marie into royalty.  In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, if I recall correctly, Marie was special because of the kindness she showed to the Nutcracker and because she had the fortitude and good aim to chuck her slipper at the Mouse King’s head.  I know it’s kind of a cliché to make a female character’s greatest trait kindness, but as I get older I start to think that kindness may be a trait that’s far greater for anyone than cleverness or any trait associated with derring-do.

And I find myself wondering once again how useful a radical new take on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is when it’s never, at least to my knowledge, had a definitive movie adaptation in the first place.  I mean, sure, the ballet adaptation gets performed every year around Christmas.  Ballet isn’t for everyone, though.  Some people have trouble interpreting the dance they’re seeing into the story that’s supposed to be conveyed.  And some people don’t really go to the ballet and only know Tchaikovsky’s music.   

And while I would love a more faithful adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, I’m realizing that it would probably be a very difficult story to adapt.  It has that whole “story of the hard nut” in the middle of it and a good chunk of the last third is just devoted to showing off the peculiarities of the Land of Sweets.  I’d still like to see them try, though.

 This is also a reminder that during Disney’s big live action fantasy trend, that while they’ve done pretty well with all their remakes and reimaginings of their own past movies, almost every time they have tried to do something outside that area it has failed to stick the landing.  So far, we’ve had Oz the Great and Powerful, Into the Woods, The BFG, A Wrinkle in Time and now The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.  Of all of them, I’d say Into the Woods was the best and you’d have a very different opinion if you asked a theater buff.  Oz the Great and Powerful I find watchable but very flawed.  A Wrinkle in Time is pretty much the best you could expect from an adaptation of a nearly unadaptable book (it carried the story okay, but it didn’t convey the interesting philosophical and scientific ideas that blew our minds in fifth grade very well).  The BFG was just “meh”.  And now we have this Nutcracker thing.  So, Walt Disney Pictures may have some trouble ahead once it runs out of adaptable stuff in its own back catalog.

Anyway, If you’re looking for some kind of Nutcracker fix this holiday season, you’re better off just going to see a local ballet performance.  Or better yet, read the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.  You can find it online HERE.
Anyway, care for a walnut?


  1. I'm refraining from seeing this because I figured I wouldn't like it, and your post reinforces my belief. I am a lifelong lover of the Nutcracker bsllet and have no desire to see it defaced like this. Given the major reworking of the story, Disney could have made a movie with a totally different title, but they were using the popularity of the Christmas classic.

    I agree with your point about Clara--she's supposed to be a regular (if upper class) girl who loves her new Nutcracker toy, saves him, and is rewarded with a visit to the Land of Sweets and a performance there. No need to make a beautifully simple story into a big drama.

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