The credits for this film say it is ‘suggested’ by E.T.A Hoffman’s original story and Tchaikovsky’s ballet. What this means is that they have taken some of the characters and ideas, a lot of the music and the all of the brand recognition from the classic Christmas tale before dancing off and doing their own thing with it. When you bear in mind that this is probably around the one hundredth screen adaptation of this story then this really is no bad thing. Everyone from Kiefer Sutherland and Peter O’Toole to Barbie and Mickey Mouse have had a go at this and it is nice to have a modern version that properly puts the heroine front and centre in her own story in a way the stage version always has. In fact I wish they’d had the courage not to put the word ‘nutcracker’ in the title at all this time as while this character is a fairly big part of the narrative, he is kind of incidental here. Certainly the fact that he’s a nutcracker is totally irrelevant and a little nonsensical in this context; he is just a soldier. (Although Jayden Fowora-Knight’s performance is a little wooden – I’m sure I’m not the only person to use that line but it is unfortunately true.)
In this film the plot is genuinely driven by Mackenzie Foy’s Clara. (You may remember Foy as the kid in Interstellar.) Clara is such a strong character here and the film has such an unforced female focused approach that it is a shame that the guy who plays second fiddle gets his name on the banner. I know that in the ballet Clara has her moment of heroism when she throws a slipper at a mouse but here she is a confident, brave, forthright, highly intelligent young woman who solves problems, wields a sword, kicks enemies down the stairs and commands an army. The only thing this girl needs saving from is her own sadness and naivety making her a relatable and flawed hero too. It isn’t even Drosselmeyer who sets everything going in this film’s plot, not really, it is Clara’s recently deceased mother. Sure, Clara is no great military strategist, deciding at one point to march her soldiers straight into Mother Ginger’s heavily defended enemy camp, but at least she’s the one to get in there and do what needs to be done.
What is also interesting here is the way the movie manages to be effortlessly feminist without worrying about being overly feminine. In many respects this Nutcracker movie is as stereotypically girlie as the Barbie one but here that merits no apology. The film heavily features dresses, ribbons, sweets, flowers, fairies and or course ballet but still succeeds in having an empowered female lead in a compelling, if simple, adventure.
The simplicity of the movie may actually be an issue for audiences. The film is not wry or knowing in the way that a lot of fantasy movies are. It has none of the dry humour of The Princess Bride or Stardust, none of the conspicuous oddness of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, none of the modernity of Oz the Great and Powerful and none of the darkness of Return to Oz. It doesn’t have the quirky charm of Labyrinth, doesn’t aim for the epicness of Narnia or Middle-Earth and doesn’t have the drama of Harry Potter. The film it most compares to in its straightforward nature and innocence is The Wizard of Oz. Admittedly it doesn’t have an antagonist to match the Wicked Witch of the West but she was too much of a chauvinist cliche so that wouldn’t work here anyway. With all of this The Nutcracker and the Four Realms may pitch a little young but it does have magic of its own and it is actually quite appealing in its old school sensibilities.
Speaking of the antagonist, in this respect the film does have an interesting angle. I won’t discuss this in detail so as to not spoil anything but it is a certainly different version of the character than has been seen in any previous Nutcracker. Also, for such a demure and wholesome film the villainess does on occasion seem a little sexually charged (but not sexualised) once her final plan is revealed. In places you get the impression she is a little too enamoured with the size and strength of her army.
In the end everyone is making the most of the material. How ever you read the character Helen Mirren certainly relishes her role as Mother Ginger, Keira Knightly is properly going for it as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mackenzie Foy is great. The design of the film is excellent, especially the opening shot flying low over a chocolate-box Victorian London. (Peter Pan eat your heart out.) The movie is a PG although it’s not too scary (no freaky flying monkeys) but it plays on the creepy nature of a funfair gone dark effectively when it visits Ginger’s fourth realm.
Those old tunes are still great as well. He could string notes together in a tidy fashion could that Tchaikovsky fella and James Newton Howard’s arrangements modify the famous music sensitively. It also stages a full ballet in the middle just like Oklahoma and Singing in the Rain and in this section prima ballerina Misty Copeland shines.
If you watch this in the right frame of mind then and you don’t care that it forgets that it’s a Christmas movie about half an hour in then this is offers a good family trip to the cinema.