With the holiday season upon us, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston’s dark and intriguing interpretation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s timeless Christmas tale, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s classic “Nutcracker Suite” is now open in theaters nationwide.
In a storyline that is reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz,” young Clara (Mackenzie Foy) receives a beautiful Fabergé egg from her beloved but mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who tells her that her mother, who passed away, wanted her to have it. Unfortunately, the key that she needs to unlock the treasure is missing.
A golden thread that Drosselmeyer gives her at his annual Christmas party leads Clara to the key, which disappears into a strange parallel universe. It is there that she meets Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a nutcracker soldier who vows to help her find and retrieve the precious key. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one who wants it.
During their search, Clara and Phillip encounter the beautiful and kind Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), whom, at an elegant Pageant Ball, tells them the story of the Four Realms: Land of Flowers, Land of Snowflakes and Land of Sweets. Through an exciting dance, the exquisite Ballerina Princess (American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland) helps Sugar Plum share the legend, and Clara and Phillip discover that they must venture into the forbidding Fourth Realm, ruled by the evil Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and restore peace and harmony to the realm.
Though the original characters are still in place — Drosselmeyer, The Nutcracker, The Mouse King, The Sugar Plum Fairy — this age-old holiday story gets turned around and upside down by screenwriter Ashleigh Powell.
As Clara and the noble Nutcracker, Mackenzie Foy and Jayden Fowora-Knight share a sweet, sincere chemistry that is quite engaging. Her portrayal of Clara was laden with modern day “girl power,” while his performance as Phillip/The Nutcracker took the traditional portrayal of a brave young swain to the next level. In the pivotal role of Sugar Plum, Keira Knightley shows versatility and surprising sass.
Being as familiar and as captivated as I am by this holiday masterpiece, usually presented in the form of an enchanting ballet, I sorely missed the series of delightful dances that are usually presented to Clara during her time at the Ball.
Copeland was aggressively promoted before this film opened, and while what she did was beautiful, her brief performance almost felt like a “flash act,” the way the Nicholas Brothers were used in their films. Her most impressive appearance actually took place as the credits rolled, when she performed a coquettish pas de deux.
As for Tchaikovsky’s score, following and recognizing the interesting edits of the “Nutcracker Suite” throughout the story was almost like an engrossing little game.
While this visually breathtaking production is quite likely the most elaborate and magical production to date, due to the sinister spin that Hallstrom put on what is usually a frothy holiday fantasy, I was never truly enveloped by the warm feeling of Christmas, as I have been in previous productions throughout the years.
While I feel that the presence and talents of the fabulous Copeland could have been showcased more effectively, the likeable characters and gorgeous cinematography, along with the unexpected twists in the classic story, will make “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” an enjoyable family film this holiday season. (Rated: PG)