Custodian of brands like Pixar and Marvel, Disney certainly knows a thing or two about pre-sold properties. But there is pre-sold and there is “The Nutcracker” during the holiday season.
The ballet performed to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music has introduced generations of youngsters worldwide to classical music and its performances not only keep multiplying but also keep earning money as well. In fact, reports say that the holiday extravaganza can generate anywhere between 40% and 45% of an American company’s annual revenue. That’s a lot of toeshoes.
It’s taken Disney some time to get there, but it has now added this particular chestnut to its cache of family-friendly perennials.
But in true Hollywood fashion, rather than emphasizing the piece’s familiarity, “The Nutcracker and The Four Realms” is being promoted as “not the Nutcracker you know.” This is mostly true and mostly, but not entirely, a good thing.
Visually dazzling from its opening scene, this “Nutcracker,” production designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas and photographed by Linus Sandgren with visual effects supervised by Max Wood, looks tiptop as it presents an owl’s eye view of Victorian London at night. This is a film determined to visually delight us, and why not?
This “Nutcracker,” with a screenplay by Ashleigh Powell, is also unabashed about providing life lessons. Focusing on believing in yourself, finding your place in the world and endorsing empowerment for its smart and independent young heroine, “Nutcracker” is unabashed about being earnest and four-square, and that is one of its attractions.
But because no modern family film is considered complete without a requisite number of sinister plot turns and busy action sequences, “Nutcracker” has added several in. These scenes, however, come off as pro forma rather than integral and the plot they are linked to can seem overly complicated. It almost seems as if two different people directed the film, and in fact they have.
A pair of directors working sequentially, Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, are jointly credited with helming “Nutcracker,” but the real auteur here, frankly, is likely the powerful Disney system.
(According to press reports, the special-effects-savvy Johnston was involved with mandated reshoots because Hallström, who returned for post-production, was unavailable to supervise the new sequences because of schedule conflicts.)
As with many Disney epics, care was taken both with lead casting (Mackenzie Foy sparkles as 14-year-old heroine Clara) as well as peripheral elements that, when taken together, can help attract an audience.
So the supporting players include polished professionals like Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman, both familiar faces to the potential grandparents in the audience.
For those expecting ballet, not only is a bit provided but it is executed by top dancers Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin. And James Howard’s score echoes Tchaikovsky’s music and was conducted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel and features piano by Lang Lang, boldface names all.
This “Nutcracker” also takes a moment to tip its hat to some Hollywood predecessors. Dudamel is featured in a silhouette shot that echoes the way conductor Leopold Stokowski was presented in Disney’s 1940 “Fantasia,” which used the Nutcracker music.
And when Clara takes a look around the fantasyland she’s about to enter and says “Guess I’m not in London anymore,” the nod to Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” is unmistakable.
Young Clara is introduced on Christmas Eve as the middle child in a well-to-do London family that has recently been shattered by the death of the wife and mother that held everyone together.
A scientifically inclined independent thinker, Clara would rather be spending her time in the attic working on Rube Goldberg contraptions that socializing. But she is happy to go to the annual party given by her godfather and kindred spirit, the inventor Drosselmeyer (Freeman), and this year she has a special reason to want to go.
That’s because her mother has left her as a Christmas gift an enormous mechanical egg along with an enigmatic note that reads “Everything you need is inside.” The only problem is, the key needed to open the egg has not been included.
At Drosselmeyer’s house, Clara goes down a passageway and, like the children in the Narnia stories, finds herself in a parallel universe where a handsome young Nutcracker captain (Jayden Fowora-Knight) informs her that her mother was the queen of this particular world and that she herself is a princess.
In her mother’s time, this universe consisted of the four realms of the title, each with a regent. But now one of the realms, the fourth, has apparently gone rogue. Its regent, Mother Ginger (Mirren), has been banished and has to depend on the services of a noticeably grotesque CG invention called the Mouse King, a looming moving figure constructed of some 60,000 mice. Really.
Though the Land of Flowers is especially beautiful (2 million individual CG blooms go a long way), the most influential regent is clearly the Sugar Plum Fairy, in charge of the Land of Sweets.
Star Keira Knightley has great fun with this role, adding unexpected elements of Mae West to its Snow White core. Sugar Plum also needs that key, and she encourages Clara to return to the fourth realm to get it.
That quest, as well as the film, turn out to be considerably more complicated than anyone anticipates, and there are moments when you wish it was less so. The visual allure of this production is undeniable, but having the nerve to be simple and nice all the way through is, even for Disney, verging on being a lost art.
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”
MPAA rating: PG for some mild peril.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.