The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

When I started seeing movie posters for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I was curious but apprehensive. Watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised.

Unlike the 1993 film featuring ballet student and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, the movie is not merely a recording of a stage performance of the ballet, nor is it a musical, nor does it follow the “story” of the ballet. It’s a through-the-looking glass version, a mirror image, or echo of the story in the ballet. The film includes a bit of ballet and some of the musical themes, but mostly it is a beautiful, original, inspiring fantasy.

The sets, CGI, and costumes are impressive, but the strength of the movie is the theme it expresses: how to deal with the loss of a loved one. There are healthy ways and unhealthy ways, both demonstrated dramatically.

Other solid, admirable themes are family togetherness, friendship and loyalty, creativity and curiosity, bravery, compassion and forgiveness, choice, and belief in one’s self.

With so much for the protagonist to learn on her adventure, I don’t see how detractors can call the movie ‘soulless’. Did we even watch the same movie? Whatever their reasons, critics and audiences don’t seem to like this movie nearly as much as I did, saying it’s as clunky as that ambitious 2018 flop, A Wrinkle in Time. That’s not fair at all. Four Realms is miles better than A Wrinkle in Time.

Maybe the detractors don’t award as many points for theme as they do for how subtly those themes are expressed. Some hoped for more ballet, others hoped for more music. Some wanted it to be scarier, others wanted it less scary. Maybe they all simply had higher expectations. Maybe nobody quite knew what to expect at all. I agree the film could have been better, but I think it was actually pretty decent. This review at Empire Online agrees with me.

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet plot summary for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Opening Image
An owl is flying over Victorian London at Christmastime. He tries to catch a mouse, but the mouse darts inside the window of the attic where Clara is demonstrating and explaining a Rube Goldberg mouse trap to her younger brother. The machine catches the mouse, but the arrival of a servant upsets the trap and the mouse escapes.

Clara’s mother has died and Clara feels it keenly. Her older sister and younger brother are holding up okay, and her father only seems interested in keeping up appearances.

Catalyst / Theme Stated
Clara’s father gives her the Christmas Eve gift her mother wanted her to have: an egg sealed with a pin tumbler lock that can only be opened with a key, and a note that says “Everything you need is inside.”

Clara’s father insists she at least pretend to celebrate Christmas at the party they are expected to attend at her godfather’s mansion. Clara agrees to go so that she can see whether her godfather knows where she can find the key. He loves Clara and appreciates her brilliant mind. He seems to know something about the secret of the egg. He tells his owl to watch over Clara. Clara refuses to dance with her father, rudely implying that he is being selfish.

Break into Two
The children at the party receive their gifts by following labelled, colored strings around the mansion. Clara’s string takes her to a deserted passageway. In a moment reminiscent of Lucy’s entry into Narnia, Clara emerges into a snowy forest. She sees the key she is seeking hanging on a Christmas tree. Before she can grasp it, a mouse snatches it and runs away. She chases the mouse to the edge of a frozen river, but dares not try to cross the thin ice. The nutcracker soldier who guards the nearby bridge tells her it is forbidden to cross the bridge into the dangerous Fourth Realm without a royal order. Learning the name of the queen, Clara and the soldier realize Clara is a princess. The soldier agrees to let Clara cross. He asks her to call him “Captain” and vows to accompany and protect her.

B-story / Fun and Games
Clara and the Captain chase the mouse, but Clara gets attacked by a swarm of mice in the form of a giant mouse king. The Captain manages to free her. After nearly encountering the giant tent robot of the fearsome ex-regent Mother Ginger, the two escape to the fantastic Russian-looking castle at the center of the four realms, where Clara meets the other three regents and tells them of her mother’s death. One of the regents, Sugar Plum, befriends Clara, dresses her up, and accompanies her to a ballet that explains the story of the queen and the four realms: the realm of snowflakes, the realm of flowers, the realm of sweets, and the now-forbidden realm of amusements. Sugar Plum shows Clara a machine that the queen used to bring life to snowflakes, flowers, sweets and toys, and explains that the machine is needed to make an army to fight the ambitious Mother Ginger. However, it cannot work without a certain key.

Clara doesn’t have the key, but the keyhole matches the keyhole in the egg she carries. Clara leads an expedition of soldiers to the Fourth Realm to retrieve the lost key. The soldiers get swallowed up by holes in the ground. Clara stumbles into Mother Ginger’s giant tent robot where she is menaced by creepy clown creatures that split in half and fit inside one another like Russian dolls. Higher in the tent, Clara confronts Mother Ginger and impulsively snatches the key from her without waiting to hear what she has to say about its dangers. She escapes with the Captain and pauses to open the egg before returning to the castle. Inside the egg, she finds only a music box. Why had her mother said she needed such a frivolous thing? Maybe she should just go home.

Bad Guys Close In / All Is Lost
After the Captain reassures Clara that she is needed in the Four Realms, Clara takes the key to Sugar Plum, who uses it to activate the life-giving machine. The soldiers who come to life follow only Sugar Plum’s orders. Sugar Plum says she plans to attack Mother Ginger, claiming that the best defense is a good offense. Clara objects, but Sugar Plum doesn’t care. She’s hurt that Clara’s mother abandoned the four realms, abandoned her. Now, with an army of strong, obedient, uniformed tin men to protect her, she believes she can never be hurt again. She orders her soldiers to lock Clara, the Captain, and the other two regents in the tallest castle tower, and to imprison the other soldiers in the dungeon.

Dark Night of the Soul
Clara despairs. She realizes that Mother Ginger had never done anything wrong; Sugar Plum only said she had. Clara was foolish for believing her. Now the whole kingdom will go to ruin. Clara, angry with herself, lashes out and blames the Captain for convincing her to return to the castle with the key.

Break into Three
Clara realizes the egg music box also contains a mirror. Her mother’s message meant that everything Clara needed was within herself. Filled with fresh confidence, Clara apologizes to the Captain and asks to be forgiven. She and the Captain escape the frighteningly tall tower using a rope and Clara’s knowledge of physics. They join forces with one of the mice, who leads them to a cliff where Clara can sneak into the machine room. The Captain and the mouse go off to scheme with Mother Ginger.

Mother Ginger’s Russian dolls, the giant tent robot, and the Captain distract Sugar Plum and her soldiers while Clara sneaks around in the machine room, shutting of the machine’s waterwheel power source and fiddling with the settings. Mother Ginger arrives on the scene to assist Clara. Sugar Plum isn’t fooled for long, however, and flies back to the machine room in the castle. She captures Mother Ginger and threatens to turn her into a toy by using the machine backwards. Clara begs her to stop fighting and assures her that she is not alone, that things can go back to how they were. Sugar Plum refuses, not realizing that the machine is now pointed at her. When Sugar Plum angrily activates the machine, it turns her into a toy, instantly deactivating all the attacking tin soldiers.

After the Four Realms celebrate the end of hostilities, the Captain escorts Clara back to the toppled tree so she can return to the Christmas party, where all along, time has been moving much more slowly than in the Four Realms. Out in a gazebo in the snowy garden, Clara has a talk with her father, who clearly misses his wife as much as Clara misses her mother. They agree to remember her fondly but also to enjoy their future together as a family. The two dance to the music of the music box, which plays the tune Clara’s mother and father first danced to. They are joined by Clara’s brother and sister, and seen by the godfather’s owl as he flies off into the night.

Final Image
A receding owl’s eye view of Victorian London.

More nutcracker music with ballet, plus some modern dance!

Further thoughts on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

If you’re a grown up, maybe you can see the “Look inside yourself” message coming a mile away. That doesn’t make it less meaningful. Everyone suffers from self-doubt (or “imposter syndrome”), and often we don’t feel as though we really belong.

Maybe you think the three regents, the two useless minor characters and the secret villain, are over-acting. Okay, maybe. But I like Sugar Plum’s about face. She’s powerful, but she’s also angry and hurt. Her petulance is no more of an artistic exaggeration than any political cartoon.

What I think I liked least was the scene with the creepy clowns. The clowns were fascinating, though. I kept trying to figure out how on earth they filmed them. Their bouncing and splitting is not just super weird, it’s lightning fast. Those antics are impossible without a lot of editing.

I liked the nod to Fantasia. One of the musical bits showed silhouettes of musicians as in the 1940 film.

The story of Four Realms is quite different from the story of the original Nutcracker.

A few times as a child, my great aunt took me to watch the Nutcracker ballet performed live. What I remember is that there’s a girl who, on the night of Christmas Eve, is transported into a magical realm where she watches a variety of fanciful dances, including a woman with a huge skirt that conceals people beneath it. The nutcracker soldier protects her from a menacing rat king. There’s a man with an eye patch. There’s a clock, whose chiming is perhaps what sends the girl off and brings her back.

The choice to feature mice instead of rats signaled from the very beginning that the story was going to be different. Rats are bad; mice, surely, are going to help the good guys in the end. So who’s the villain? Not the woman set up as the villain: the creepy doll with the broken face and the crazy clowns. No, the villain is someone you think is a friend.

The villain is not evil for no reason, though: she’s been hurt. However, when she’s given a chance to halt the war, she chooses to reject the friendship and forgiveness that are offered out of genuine, sincere compassion. We feel relief when she is defeated, but we also feel sad, because she could have made a different choice—and didn’t.

More reviews of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The ratings are terrible, but the reviews are not all bad!

The negative reviews generally say the movie is dull and boring while being visually excessive. Beyond that, they disagree on what stinks. Some say the lead actress is wooden, others say she’s the movie’s saving grace. Some dislike Sugar Plum’s squeaky weirdness, some are delighted with it. Some say the actors and ballet dancers are horribly underused, and some say their performances lend depth to the rest of the production. Some applaud the diverse casting and feminist message, and some say the result is transparently shallow and insufficient. Some love the costumes, and some hate them. Some say the CGI is grating, and some say it’s great. Go figure.

Mixed and Positive Reviews

  • Collider says it’s a solid, earnest, unusually creative kids’ adventure.
  • The Guardian says it’s sugary but still enchanting.
  • IGN says it’s over-the-top but still charming; also, beware clowns.
  • Insider says that although the plot twists are predictable, and the target audience vague, the star is credible and her sidekick the nutcracker is charming.

Negative Reviews

  • Variety calls it a let-down, but usefully points out that the mouse’s name is “Mouserinks”, a name the characters say but which I never understood.
  • Vulture has a host of complaints, but I’m not sure what the main complaint is.
  • Hollwood Reporter calls it charmless and dull.
  • Screen Daily calls it disappointing (overstuffed and underwhelming).
  • IndieWire calls it soulless, eye-popping dreck.
  • AV Club says the costumes are memorable but the rest isn’t.
  • Polygon faults it for trying to be a combination of several things it’s not.
  • Rolling Stone calls it “slow torture” for all ages because it had two directors.

Rolling Stone, I feel it should be pointed out, mistakenly says that Clara’s father insists she wear her mother’s favorite dress, which is wrong on two counts: Clara’s sister receives the dress as a gift from her mother and chooses to wear it right away (which, I grant, is kind of a strange decision).