The Movie Guru: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightly excellent in ‘The Nutcraker and the Four Realms’
For anyone who’s seen the ballet, the main appeal of “The Nutcracker” is how pretty it is.
In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect fantasy for all the young girls who watch it every year. There are gorgeous costumes, magical realms, beautiful dancing and a toy that comes to life and battles giant mice. Yes, there’s really no narrative conclusion to any of this — the “this is all a dream” idea was tired even a hundred years ago — but that’s not why anyone’s there. They want to get carried away by fantasy of it all.
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” tries hard to give audiences that same sense of immersive beauty, to the point that it includes some actual ballet. It mostly manages it, and goes one step further by offering considerably more cleverness than I would have expected underneath all that prettiness. Though it’s hardly the timeless Christmas classic it’s hoping to be, its got more than enough magic to qualify as a pleasant holiday diversion.
The movie starts with young Clara and her family trying to enjoy Christmas after the death of her mother earlier in the year. Clara feels lost in her grief, but a visit to her godfather Drosselmeyer leads her to a magical realm that was once ruled by her mother. While trying to solve the puzzle of her mother’s last gift to her, Clara will run into strange figures, try to save the realm, and find peace in her own heart.
The visuals are gorgeous, as expected, though they don’t overwhelm you with them. Since this is a Christmas film, there are far more vast snowy vistas than flowers, but it works well with the narrative. They manage to hook the world into the sort of loose logic that doesn’t contradict the ballet too much, letting themselves play with toys and sweets in a way that seems magical rather than cheesy.
The ballet sequences offer their own kind of beauty — almost enough to make you forget that it stops the story in its tracks. To be honest though, I’d be willing to stop most movies for the opportunity to watch the incomparable Misty Copeland dance.
The plot is more substantial than I would have expected, with some genuine cleverness alongside the expected cliches. The main thematic message can get a bit lost, but there are unrelated moments of profundity that seem to have far more impact. There are also some real moments of humor, including a few subtly wry lines that adults can get without having to worry if the kids will too.
Mackenzie Foy elevates her “clever girl” character with moments of wit and insight, while Jayden Fowora-Knight is absolutely charming as the Nutcracker. Keira Knightley’s Sugar Plum is an unexpected yet pleasant surprise, and Helen Mirren manages to be exactly as fantastically impressive as we all know her to be. Morgan Freeman is mostly himself with relatively limited screen time, but Matthew Macfadyen packs a ton of emotion in his equally limited window.
Though this “Nutcracker” isn’t perfect, there’s definitely more here than just looks. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.