FILM REVIEW – THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS. With Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren. Written by Ashleigh Powell. Directed by Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston. Rated PG for some mild peril. 99 minutes.
Loosely inspired by the famous ballet and its underlying story, THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS is an imaginative and charming movie for the upcoming holiday season. There are some dance sequences and there are some excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s well-known score, but this is not your traditional “Nutcracker.” Instead, it’s a fantasy adventure in which a young girl learns to trust her own abilities.
Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is scientifically minded, like her late mother, and has not handled her mother’s death very well. Taken to a Christmas party with her father and siblings, she seeks out the host, an apparently wealthy inventor named Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), to get help unlocking a gift from her mother that requires a key. He provides the means to get the key, which involves her crossing over to the “Four Realms,” a fantasy kingdom that she discovers was ruled over by her mother.
The key is stolen by a mouse allied with Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who seems to have declared war on the three other realms, including one led by Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), who takes the confused Clara under her wing. Obtaining the key, now in Mother Ginger’s possession, seems to be the means to setting things right. But things are not what they seem. Along the way she meets Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the Nutcracker soldier, who becomes her protector when he realizes who she is.
There are twists in the story, but the ultimate conclusion should not be in doubt, given that this is a Disney film clearly intended for family viewing. There are some surreal touches, along the lines of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but director Lasse Hallström is not Burton, and though there is peril, there’s little of the darkness of the Burton film. In one of the film’s biggest in-jokes – for knowledgeable adults – there’s a shot that’s an echo of Disney’s legendary “Fantasia.”
Foy is a feisty Disney princess (as she becomes when she learns her mother was queen), who knows her way around machinery, and yet does not shy away from the gowns and glitter of her new position. The avuncular Freeman easily handles his role as Clara’s inventor-godfather, and Mirren and Knightley – often playing much more serious roles – seem to be enjoying themselves as their fantasy characters. Both women play parts which have hidden depths allowing them to be able to go along with the ride without missing a beat. Fowora-Knight, in his first significant movie role, plays the hero with aplomb, getting his dramatic moments even though Clara will be saving the day on her own.
The movies churned out for the holiday season are often a chore, either so heavy-handed or so lightweight that they’re instantly forgettable. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” manages to avoid both traps, making this a film that should be enjoyed by young viewers for years to come.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.