Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Year: 2018

Source materials: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and Marius Petipa’s and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker

Budget:  $120–133 million

Box office: $174 million

Plot: On Christmas Eve in Victorian London, Benjamin Stahlbaum gives his children Louise, Clara, and Fritz the presents his wife Marie had set aside for them before she died. Clara receives an egg-shaped box which she is unable to unlock, together with a note saying “Everything you need is inside”. The family goes to a Christmas Eve party, hosted by the children’s godfather and skilled engineer Drosselmeyer. Clara asks Drosselmeyer how to unlock her egg. He reveals that he made the egg for Marie when she was younger.

Benjamin scolds her for refusing to dance with him, and they insult each other. Clara finds her string with her name on it, signifying her gift, and follows it into a forest in a parallel world where she sees a key. Before she can grab it, a mouse snatches it and crosses a frozen river. Captain Philip Hoffman, the Nutcracker, leads Clara across the bridge into the Fourth Realm, where they hardly escape the mouse king and Mother Ginger, the regent of the Fourth Realm. Captain Philip brings Clara to the palace, where she meets the regents of each land: the Sugar Plum Fairy of the Land of Sweets; Shiver of the Land of Snowflakes, and Hawthorne of the Land of Flowers. They tell Clara they are at war with the Land of Amusements, which they refer to as “the Fourth Realm”. It is also revealed Marie was the beloved Queen of this magical land and, thus, Clara is the princess.

The Sugar Plum Fairy explains that Marie created this world as a young girl, and that she animated everyone with a machine that can turn toys into real people. Sugar Plum says this machine can be used to defend the three realms against Mother Ginger, but it needs a key matching the one for Clara’s egg. Sneaking into the Fourth Realm, Clara and Philip steal back the key from Mother Ginger (ignoring her warning that Sugar Plum is lying to them), but Clara is disappointed to discover that the egg is only a music box.

Sugar Plum uses the machine to bring toy soldiers to life and orders them to attack the Fourth Realm. She then reveals that she lied about Mother Ginger, who had resisted Sugar Plum’s plan to take over all four realms in revenge for her perceived abandonment by Marie, and that the machine can turn this world’s people back into toys as well. She imprisons Clara, Captain Philip, and the male regents.

Clara opens her egg-shaped music box again and discovers a mirror, illustrating that all she needed was herself. She and the other prisoners escape. One of Mother Ginger’s mice shows Clara into the engine room, and Captain Philip convinces Mother Ginger to help overthrow Sugar Plum. Clara shuts down the machine while fighting off soldiers with Mother Ginger’s aid. Sugar Plum attempts to turn Mother Ginger back into a toy, but Clara tinkers with the machine so it aims back at Sugar Plum when activated, turning her back into a porcelain doll and rendering her entire army lifeless. Thanked for restoring peace among the Realms and the destruction of Sugar Plum, Clara promises to visit in the future.

After saying goodbye to Captain Philip, she returns to London, where time has hardly passed since she left. She and Benjamin apologize to each other and she finally decides to dance with him. He accepts, and Clara opens her music box. Benjamin reveals that the music was the first song that he and Marie had ever danced to. They dance throughout the night in the ballroom.

Changes to the source material: In the original Hoffman story, the main character is named Marie, which is the name of the mother in the film. She was renamed Clara in Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation, on which the ballet was based. The story is mainly concerned with the dolls against the mice. In the ballet, Clara is taken to the Nutcracker’s realm. Mother Ginger is shown as a woman with a large dress and her children emerge from below.

Background: Filming began in October 2016 in South Kensington and Pinewood Studios in England, and wrapped in late January 2017. In December 2017, it was reported that Joe Johnston would helm 32 days of reshoots, scripted by Tom McCarthy, due to Lasse Hallström being unavailable. Hallström would still oversee post-production. It was later revealed that Hallström and Johnston had voluntarily decided to receive a joint directorial credit for the film.

Cast: Keira Knightley returns as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Helen Mirren returns as Mother Ginger.

Mackenzie Foy as Princess Clara Stahlbaum. She is known for portraying Renesmee Cullen in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, which earned her a Young Artist Award nomination as Best Supporting Young Actress in a Feature Film and as the young Murphy in  Interstellar, for which she received a Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor. She also appeared in the Disney+ film Black Beauty. Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer. He rose to fame in the 1970s for his role on  The Electric Company.  His breakout role was in Street Smart, playing a hustler, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He achieved further stardom in the comedy drama Driving Miss Daisy, which garnered him a second Academy Award nomination. He is also known for Glory, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption, Seven, Nurse Betty, Bruce Almighty and its sequel, Evan Almighty, Million Dollar Baby1The Dark Knight Trilogy, Dolphin Tale, and The Lego Movie.

Eugenio Derbez as Hawthorne. He has voiced roles in the Spanish-language versions of 102 Dalmatians, Mulan, Doctor Doolittle, and Shrek.His feature film Instructions Not Included, which he directed, co-wrote and starred in became the most successful Spanish language film in the U.S. and worldwide and broke numerous box office records, earning more than $100 million worldwide. He also appeared in Jack and Jill, Girl In Progress, and in the sitcom Rob! Richard E. Grant as Shiver. He made his film debut as Withnail in the comedy Withnail and I and has had prominent roles in films such as How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Hudson Hawk, Henry & June, L.A. Story,  Bright Young Things, Penelope, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Age of Innocence, Spice World, Gosford Park, The Iron Lady, Logan, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. In 2018, Grant received critical acclaim for his role as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Misty Copeland as the Ballerina Princess. Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in The American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history. She performed on Broadway in On the Town, toured as a featured dancer for Prince and appeared on the reality television shows A Day in the Life and So You Think You Can Dance. Matthew Macfadyen as Benjamin Stahlbaum. He is known for his performance as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, and Daniel in Death at a Funeral. He also portrayed John Birt in Frost/Nixon and Detective Inspector Edmund Reid onRipper Street. In June 2010, Macfadyen won the British Academy Television Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work on Criminal Justice. He also appeared in Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and Anna Karenina. Macfadyen currently stars as Tom Wambsgans on Succession.

Music: The music was adapted in part from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker from 1892 by James Newton Howard, updating the original and adding new tracks as well. For the recording, Gustavo Dudamel conducted the London Philharmonia Orchestra, while Lang Lang was the piano soloist. Andrea Bocelli and his son Matteo contributed the original duet “Fall on Me” for the film, which premiered on Dancing with the Stars’ “Disney Night” on October 22, 2018.

Critical Reception:

  • David Ehrlich of IndieWire gave the film a grade of “D+”, calling the film “empty but eye-popping.” He went on to write, “Watching a visually spectacular but virtually soulless new family movie like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s tempting to wonder if such eye-popping dreck has any hope of sticking with impressionable young audiences. Is there any chance that the kids of today might be nostalgic for this hyper-saturated nonsense tomorrow?”
  • Alonso Duralde of TheWrap also gave the film a negative review, writing “The ‘child travels to a magical land and learns things’ trope has been the basis of many beloved stories, from The Wizard of Oz to The Phantom Tollbooth to The Chronicles of Narnia. But it’s not a foolproof device, particularly when the magical land in question never makes much narrative sense; besides, how can the Four Realms be magical when the London where Clara already lives is so obviously a cartoon? Both the ‘real’ world and the fake one are ugly, overdone, and lacking any visual connection to gravity let alone reality.”

My take: The production design is incredible and there is a lot of CGI. The plot is rather insane. There is a nod to Fantasia in the beginning of the ballet. Copeland is wonderful of course, but it’s the only dancing in the film

Available on Disney +?: Yes

Next Week: Remember the Titans (This time, I promise)