‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ Is Heavy on the Visuals but Light on the Story

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” begins where stories of this nature often start, with the death of a parent. The untimely passing of mother Marie (Anna Madelely) threatens to rend the Stahlbaum family in two. At the conflict’s center is the deteriorating relationship of Clara (Mackenzie Foy) and her father (Matthew Macfadyen). As in the ballet upon which it is loosely based, it is Christmas Eve, and Clara is due to come of age.

As the movie opens, an owl soars through the early evening landscape of late Victorian London in winter. The owl flies into an attic where it reveals a small mouse. Young Clara, while instructing little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), starts a Rube Goldberg-style contraption. Toys on wheels cross high wires. Model Viking ships cross tracks setting one thing into motion and then another until a wooden cage falls from the sky. As in the popular board game Mouse Trap, the mouse is caught.

This scene is a microcosm of the movie to follow. It pulls from a myriad of cultural references like Vikings and Rube Goldberg to form something new from many things familiar.

Time with the trapped rodent is limited. Gathering at the family’s Christmas tree, the Stahlbaums’ children receive their mother’s last gift to them. Clara gets a mechanical egg she cannot open, but her mother’s note tells her that she will find everything she needs inside. And then they are off to the Christmas Eve party at the elaborate mansion belonging to Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). As in the ballet, it is the mysterious manipulator Drosselmeyer who will set the story in motion. Clara will be challenged and grow. Her mother’s memory will take on new meaning. And the Stahlbaums will again know unity and peace.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is filled with non-stop score with evocative new recordings of Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet. John Newton Howard gets the credit for the score but since so much of it is an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s work, it’s hard to tell where Howard’s contribution begins.

The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and cinematography by Linus Sandgren is warmly nostalgic. While the cast doesn’t dance, the camera does with its long and sweeping single takes, choreographed with memorable detail that echoes the ballroom scenes of “Russian Arc.”

The film itself is a cornucopia of visual references to the best of Disney fantasy. There are truly scary Pagliacci (Italian Clowns) that would feel equally at home in a Tim Burton movie as they do here. Cutaways to the silhouetted orchestra conductor instantly recall the similar visual of Leopold Stokowski in “Fantasia,” a reminder that this is not the first appearance of “The Nutcracker Suite” in a Disney film.

Evidence of steam punk and the original “Wizard of Oz” can also be seen throughout.

As Disney attempts to bring yet another fantasy franchise into its circle, the movie contains many of the key elements of the ballet. There is the mouse army and its king.

There is also the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who is willing to sacrifice all in his defense of the princess Clara. Keira Knightly plays a Sugar Plum Fairy that curiously evokes Connie Stevens. Mackenzie Foy is a sweet presence as Clara, who in turn evokes a young Olivia Hussey. Morgan Freeman convincingly plays Morgan Freeman under the pseudonym of Drosselmeyer.

Former “MI-5” spy, Matthew Macfadyen is a loving but stunted father. Helen Mirren appeals as the suspicious Mother Ginger.

Co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston provide a Directors Guild first by sharing the directing credit. Johnston and his mastery of visual effects combined with the Swede Hallström’s sensitivity with actors make for an excellent collaboration; evocative of everything this movie wants to be.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is light on story, but so is the ballet. It is strong with magical images. Clara’s journey to the Four Realms pulls respectively from many sources to create a delightful entertainment just in time for the holidays.

The Nutcracker and Four Realms” opens Nov. 2 in theaters nationwide.