I was excited heading into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, perhaps not at first, but when I realised only a couple of weeks ago, that the film is co-directed by Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and Joe Johnston, helmer of the underappreciated Captain America: The First Avenger. It is also lensed by Linus Sandgren, the man behind gorgeous pictures like La La Land and First Man, with music by James Newton Howard, who once collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The film’s penned by Ashleigh Powell, an unknown, a debutante, a wildcard, leaving the door open for plenty of surprises. So, I was excited.
You see, It’s been some time — a very long time, in fact — since I’ve watched a fantasy film that offers a truly transportive experience. Star Wars does, yes, but it’s an ever-expanding universe created more than three decades ago. I’m looking for something fresh. Comic book movies don’t quite fit the bill. These movies, for the most part, take place in our world, or in the case of the gritty and grim DC, worlds that look and feel very much like ours.
There’s a unique fascination with films like Harry Potter. The kind where every castle, corner and corridor is superbly imagined with wonderous detail by their authors and then later brilliantly adapted into moving images by equally imaginative directors. Fantasy films that inspired a whole generation of kids… and adults too — I’m 25 years old and I find it necessary to mention that I’m ‘House Ravenclaw’ on my Twitter profile, when I was single, my Tinder profile too. So, yes, I was excited. I also wondered, as I always wonder heading into fantasy films, if this could be the next Harry Potter or Star Wars.
No, it’s not.
Not for 100 long, mundane, unimaginative minutes, which is a surprise and a damn shame given the talents involved in front of and behind the camera. In fact, after watching A Wrinkle in Time and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I think I understand why Disney has opted to remake all their classics. (Beauty and the Beast came out last year and The Jungle Book, the year before that. We also have Aladdin, Mulan and Lion King set to be released soon.) The Mouse seems to have run out of inspiration, if not ideas. This film is as flat as Chapati. Heck, it even tastes like Chapati too — flavourless, tame, with zero fat.
The premise, on its surface, is like many fantasy films that have come before it. A seemingly ordinary kid finds herself transported into a magical world, only to discover that she’s special (here, young Clara is royalty; her mom created the otherworld). It’s a tried and tested premise, but one that will never get old, because inside all of us is a teen looking towards the horizon at twin suns pondering about the world out there. Which is why fantasy films are easy sells. The problem is, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t seem remotely interested in itself. It just wants to get to the next scene and the next scene and the next scene and hurry towards the finish line.
We’re told right off the bat, that Clara’s mom has passed away. But we don’t know why and we’re not given time to process this information. A couple of quick scenes later, we’re at a Christmas party (Clara’s dad insists they go because “that’s what’s expected of us.” But again, we’re not given room to understand why the dad is behaving coldly). At the party, out of nowhere, we’re fed a bunch of information in cliff note format:
- Clara has a Godfather (Morgan Freeman, sleeping his way to the bank) who’s an inventor of sorts??
- He’s also a very rich guy?? (The party, I think is taking place at his house, in which there are a lot of people in fancy suits whom Clara’s dad finds necessary to impress.)
- He also knows about Clara’s mom.
No, the question marks aren’t typos.
After the flat, emotionally void build up, with dialogue solely consisting of banal and unclear plot-furthering information, that teach us absolutely nothing about the characters or their state of mind, Clara finds herself at the entrance of the magical world, by which point I was already ready to tap out. But hey, we’re here. If the film gets it right from this moment on, where it truly matters, then the lifeless opening becomes almost inconsequential.
But this film severely lacks a sense of wonder, joy and discovery. I’m talking about that jaw-dropping moment in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when the first years walk through the doors of the Great Hall for the very first time. Or how we light up when we catch a glimpse of the Elven realm, Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring. Here, we’re not taken on a journey that keeps our eyes wide open and gleaming. Even Clara doesn’t seem to be amazed, curious or frightened that she just walked out of a tree bark into a snowy world guarded by a life-sized nutcracker come to life.
It’s easy to see why she isn’t amazed, though. The world isn’t all that alluring and expansive, despite what the characters say. There’s no scope, no attention to detail. Outside of unmemorable, hollow set pieces that may put smiles on the faces of three-year-olds, you look around and you see absolutely nothing magical. Trees are just trees, snowy patches are just snowy patches.
The world doesn’t feel lived in. It isn’t occupied. It is neither inviting nor scary. Heck, I don’t exactly know WHAT this world is, or get the sense of how big it is. (Hallstrom and Johnston don’t even show us Clara’s mom bringing the magical world to life.) It is called “Four Realms” but those words bear as much meaning as “The Nine Infinite Kingdoms of Sinep,” which are just random words I threw together, especially Sinep, which is penis spelt backwards.
What do these Four Realms look like? Is each one different from the other? How many people occupy these realms and what do they (besides our lead and supporting characters) look like? Do they all converse in English? Are there creatures that fly? Do monsters lurk in the waters beneath the ice? Why are there hardly any extras in the film? Why is there only ONE HORSE in this immaculate reality? If this movie is called The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, why is it neither about the Nutcracker nor about the four realms?
This movie also doesn’t take itself seriously. It, like a lot of films these days, tries to be cool by winking at the audience. Think of the scene where Hagrid taps the bricks with his wand infused umbrella outside of The Leaky Cauldron causing the wall to shift and morph into the entrance of Diagon Alley. Now imagine a somewhat similar process, only nothing awe-inspiring happens. Picture a life-sized nutcracker hyping up the Four Realms and then pulling a lever which causes some giant golden gears to spin and then… a variation of a rising arm barrier pops open and reveals nothing magical as if to say “Haha! You were expecting something cool, weren’t you? Gotcha!” It gets a laugh from the half-dead cinema. But is it a joke that fits?
I rarely enjoy movies that aren’t earnest. But if you do decide to laugh at yourself and poke fun at the genre, you have to lean into it HARD as we see in Deadpool or The Lego Batman Movie. It has to be a gut buster from start to finish, otherwise, it only makes an already unmagical world, even more so.
Look, I know I haven’t delved into the meat of the story. But how do I discuss the meat when The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is just skin and bones. There’s a sugar lady (Keira Knightley going full HAM) and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren who’s at the stage of her career where she’s like “Screw it. I’m bored, I’ll do it.” Remember Winchester?) and both of them are at war. There’s also a twist… okay i’ll cut the crap, this movie sucks.
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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
I also wondered, as I always wonder heading into fantasy films, if this could be the next Harry Potter or Star Wars. No, it’s not. Not by 3750 long, mundane, unimaginative miles, which is a surprise and a damn shame given the talents involved in front of and behind the camera.