The Nutcracker has become an established holiday tradition. Most of us know it as the ballet and its Tchaikovsky music and now, Disney is bringing forth a new incarnation of the story in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
The credits say the film is “suggested by the short story ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ by E. T. A Hoffman and the ‘Nutcracker Ballet’ by Marius Petipa”. It is both familiar and different. The familiarity comes from the main elements of the story, plus the use of the Tchaikovsky music and bits of dance within the story. The difference comes from new places that this film takes the story.
In this version, directed by Lasse Halström and Joe Johnston, we meet Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), a bright fourteen year-old in Victorian London. Clara is something of an inventor. In the opening scene, she demonstrates her Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap. But Clara also has a sadness about her. This is the first Christmas for her family after the death of her mother. Before heading out to a Christmas party, her father (Matthew MacFadyen) gives her and her siblings presents from their mother. Clara’s is an egg-shaped box, but it is locked and there is no key—only a note that says, “Everything you need is inside.”
At the party, we meet her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), also an inventor, who made the egg for Clara’s mother. He notes how hard it will be to open without the key. But later, seeking for her godfather’s present, she finds herself in a very different world. When she finds the key there, a mouse runs in, steals the key and runs off. Chasing after it she meets a nutcracker guard, Captain Phillip Hoffman (Jaden Fowora-Knight). Thus begins Clara’s adventure.
It turns out that her mother had been to this world, where she was the queen. Clara is welcomed like a princess and meets the regents of the various realms, most notably Sugar Plum (Kiera Knightley). It turns out that since her mother’s time, the kingdom there has faced rebellion. Three of the realms still enjoy the wonders of this world, but the Fourth Realm, presided over by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) and the Mouse King, has separated itself and fallen into darkness and disorder.
They look to Clara to save them. There is a weapon Clara’s mother designed that could bring an end to this, but the key is lost. Clara recognizes that it is the same key that opens her egg. So she sets off with a band of soldiers, led by the nutcracker into the Fourth Realm to regain the key. But when she does, we learn all is not as we have been told and not everyone is as they seem.
At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story as Clara must discover her strength and how to overcome the adversity not only of the mystical kingdom she has discovered, but in the real world as well. Through her adventure she learns that even though her mother is gone, her mother’s love and influence still touches her. She also learns that others suffer just as she does and that she is able to bring healing just as others can heal her.
Clara’s growth is facilitated by the connections she finds in the two worlds. Her godfather was very close to her mother throughout her life and sees in Clara someone very like her. He is able to trust Clara with the tasks he knows await her in the kingdom. Her father, who she views as uncaring is, in fact, as overwhelmed by grief as Clara. In that, they find a new touchpoint for their relationship. Within the Kingdom her strongest connection is with Phillip, the nutcracker. Sugar Plum tries to push her way into Clara’s life, but the sweetness she shows turns out to be saccharine. Others, once she learns the truth, bring her the wisdom and courage she will need. While we may look at Clara as the center of the story, it is important to know that she never does anything by herself. She always has the support of others in making things right.
This iteration of the Nutcracker tale also has a small political bite to it. One of the characters, as the real battle for control grows, notes that the kingdom now has “a big, beautiful army to protect it”. But in this case, the army is not used for protection, but for oppression. It reminds us that force in itself is not our protection—and can even be antithetical to security. One of the messages found in the cross of Christ is that victory does not come through the world’s idea of strength. It is a message that we often have a hard time remembering in a world that trusts military and political might.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures