When Disney’s fantasy-adventure The Sorcerer’s Apprentice debuted eight years ago, I was mildly appreciative that it didn’t come with a franchise-y extended moniker like (actual examples I made up at the time) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Oath of the Dragon Ring or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Nesting Dolls of Doom.
Now, for Disney’s second dip into Fantasia-themed brand management and cannibalization of its own legacy, there is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Oh well.
Like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms takes a theme from a Fantasia sequence — in this case Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, along with the ballet and the story that goes with it — and grafts it to an obligatory “Hero’s Journey” story arc constructed largely of standard-issue tropes and prefabricated parts.
Also there are Nesting Dolls of Doom in both movies, sort of, which is a connection I did not expect. Will this become a running theme? In another eight years will we be treated to a Dance of the Hours adventure in which the alligators pop out of ominous giant matryoshkas? How will they work nesting dolls into the plot for Toccata and Fugue?
I kid, of course, but there’s something genuinely depressing about seeing one of the most audacious experiments in animation history used not for actual inspiration, but as a kind of scrap heap for spare parts.
If you thought the Fantasia connection was just a coincidence and the filmmakers picked this subject just because they love ballet, think again: There’s actually a sequence where a silhouetted conductor climbs onto a dais and the orchestra is glimpsed in rows of colorful shadows.
Yet the filmmakers show no sensitivity to the historic associations of imagery and music that are now Disney canon. In one scene characters run through a forest past brightly-colored mushrooms, and you’re meant to smile with recognition, although the mushrooms never dance and don’t matter in any way. Worse, the bit of the Nutcracker Suite playing at that moment is not the Chinese Dance, but the Arab Dance, which should make you think not of dancing mushrooms but of coy harem-girl fish.
The Four Realms opens with Clara (Mackenzie Foy) triggering a Rube Goldberg mousetrap that begins with a hot air balloon and ends with a basket dropping on a conveniently placed mouse. This sequence offers a fitting metaphor for the film: a complicated mechanical assemblage over which Disney hopes audiences will beat a path to theater doors.
What tropes and prefab bits? So help me, it starts with a “Dead Mother/Wife” plot. This is not due to source material; Clara’s mother is alive and well in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which the libretto for Tchaikovsky’s ballet is based. Apparently Disney just feels compelled to kill off the mother or else they don’t know how to function.
Of course with the Dead Mother/Wife comes Disapproving Dad (Matthew Macfadyen). Dad is sad and stern and expects Clara to keep up Christmas family traditions and socialize rather than spending all her time in the attic with her Rube Goldberg devices, because it’s what’s expected.
When Clara protests that she doesn’t care about family traditions, her father retorts, “Well, you should!” This is at least potentially the most interesting exchange in the film. You could make a thoughtful family film about this question. Naturally, the filmmakers give it no more thought.
There’s also a Surprise Villain, an increasingly hackneyed Disney/Pixar device that used to be actually surprising back in the days of Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. It was no longer surprising in Toy Story 3 and Wreck-It Ralph, but the last straw for me was Hans in Frozen, who wasn’t even meant to be the villain until they decided that Let It Go was too catchy for the Snow Queen to be the villain.
What other tropes are there? Well, there’s Morgan Freeman, who has become a wise, mentorly trope unto himself. There is actually some excuse for this one, as Drosselmeyer, Clara’s godfather and a clockmaker and magician, does serve as a kind of gatekeeper to the magical goings-on.
In this version Drosselmeyer is also a proxy for Clara’s dead mother, whom he knew from a little girl, and who made the Fabergé-style jeweled egg that is Clara’s mother’s final Christmas present to her daughter.
The quest to unlock the egg leads Clara to the visually magical world of the Four Realms, which her mother sort of discovered and sort of created, and don’t try to make sense of it.
Each of the realms is governed by a regent: Keira Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy rules the Land of Sweets; Richard E. Grant’s Shiver is lord of the Land of Snowflakes; and Eugenio Derbez’s Hawthorne governs the Land of Flowers.
Then there’s the ominous Fourth Realm, where Helen Mirren’s intimidating Mother Ginger holds court. The Fourth Realm sequences include imagery far too creepy for younger kids: menacing tumbler clowns popping out of one another’s bodies; a giant mechanical doppelganger of Mother Ginger.
The Nutcracker borrows or outright plagiarizes from a variety of sources, from The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to March of the Wooden Soldiers, Coraline and especially Alice in Wonderland — the Tim Burton version, alas, itself a mishmash of parts welded to a Hero’s Journey arc.
There’s nothing wrong with artistic borrowing, but the filmmakers just throw all of these borrowed ingredients into a heap without fashioning them into something with a character of its own.
At the center of the film’s lack of inspiration is Clara, an utterly generic heroine with no discernible personality traits, no flaws, and perforce no character arc.
We’re told that she has a unique way of looking at the world, which seems to refer to her fondness of physics and machinery. Other than some tinkering and occasional lines about the laws of physics, though, this unique way of looking at the world is never actually shown. Being interested in STEM may be an attractive quality in a protagonist, especially a heroine, but it’s not really a personality trait, is it?
I can’t believe I’m citing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a positive point of contrast, but this is what it’s come to: At least Jay Baruchel’s underdog hero — who also had a thing for STEM, come to think of it — had relatable anxieties and things in his life he cared about that mattered in the movie, including the girl he had liked since the third grade.
Clara cares about her dead mother, of course, but since the mother isn’t a character in this film, Clara doesn’t have a single human relationship in the movie that matters much, except her bond with her godfather Drosselmeyer, who’s only in the framing story.
Clara’s staunchest ally in the world of the Four Realms is the Nutcracker soldier, also known as Captain Philip, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight. Captain Philip is loyal and obedient to a fault, but, as he has no quest or need of his own, he’s about as engaging as Dorothy’s three companions would be if they didn’t care about brains or heart or nerve.
Perhaps the movie might have contrived to bring Clara’s father and two siblings into the Four Realms, and the movie could have become a real family adventure. Perhaps Clara could have learned that she needs her family after all — or perhaps her special way of seeing would have been highlighted.
The Four Realms is one of those movies that makes less sense the more of its secrets are revealed (vague spoilers follow). Why is the Fourth Realm the way it is? What happened to the regiment of soldiers that followed Clara into the Fourth Realm and vanished? Whose fault is that?
Did Drosselmeyer know that Clara would face potentially lethal perils in the land of the Four Realms? Was he at all concerned that she would be killed? Is Clara’s mother an inventor or a sorceress? Why does Clara think going home early would have solved anything?
In the end, going for a heartwarming denouement, Drosselmeyer smilingly tells Clara that when her mother was asked which of her creations was her greatest, she named Clara. What kind of thing is that for a mother of three to say?
Caveat Spectator: Moderately intense menace and some creepy images; brief cursing. Tweens and up.