It seems some stories are harder to tell than others — harder to update, anyway.
“Some locks are harder than others,” Drosselmeyer tells protagonist Klara in the most recent adaptation of “The Nutcracker” — Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
“The Four Realms” follows the enterprising, young Klara Stahlbaum, played by “Twilight’s” Mackenzie Foy. Klara, who has just lost her mother, journeys through the four realms and attempts to restore them to their former glory with the nutcracker at her side on the night of Christmas Eve.
The film is studded with stars, with major roles filled by Kiera Knightley, Matthew Macfayden and Helen Mirren. The film even hearkens back to “Nutcracker’s” roots with a scene featuring a ballet performance by American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Misty Copeland.
The film provides a refreshing update in the form of two major African-American characters: Morgan Freeman as Klara’s mysterious and inventive godfather Drosselmeyer and Jayden Fowora-Knight as Captain Philip.
However, the film fails to take advantage of its talented cast, instead taking risks that not only fall flat, but left me wondering if Willy Wonka himself had directed it after binge-watching “American Horror Story”— potentially under the influence of illegal drugs.
Needless to say, this film did not seem to fit into the typical parameters set for a children’s movie.
In the opening scenes, Klara is reminiscent of “Little Women’s” Jo March, giving off “outsider” vibes and longing for the presence of an absent parent. The inclusion of Klara’s grief and the resulting estrangement of father and daughter, depicted in scenes with hollow, trite dialogue, quickly fails in its attempt to add depth and seriousness to the “real world” plot that bookends Klara’s time in the four realms.
The kingdom of the four realms is as fanciful as one would expect of the Nutcracker, made up of the Land of the Flowers, the Land of the Fairies, the Land of the Sweets and the Land of Amusements. As Klara enters this whimsical kingdom, accompanied by “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” I was hopeful that the film would refresh E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale in a way that would bring the magic of the story to life for modern audiences.
The film certainly delivered a unique adaptation.
Only minutes after the start of Klara’s journey, now accompanied by a “nutcracker” who seems in no way different from any other human character, we meet the mouse king, who is in reality a writhing mass of thousands of tiny mice. As if this were not disconcerting enough, the central characters are then greeted directly by Mother Ginger, who operates a marionette-like mechanical woman who towers above the trees.
Upon her escape, Klara is led to the castle, where she discovers that her mother also visited this realm and was the queen — making her the princess of the Land of the Flowers, the Land of the Fairies and the Land of the Sweets.
The “Freak Show”-esque vibes continue, however, when Klara returns with reinforcements to free the kingdom from the horrors of Mother Ginger. Here, she faces the abandoned carnival rides and grotesque clowns of the former Land of Amusements.
To this point, the plot has moved at a reasonable pace, and it begins to accelerate moving forward. The reveal of the sickly sweet Sugarplum Fairy as the true villain is a pleasantly effective plot twist. However, the Fairy’s vaguely sexual pleasure at the creation of her tin soldier army reminded me of my earlier discomfort at “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” being classified as a children’s movie.
The final battle scene that follows is unremarkable but efficient, bringing peace to the kingdom and character development to Klara as she realizes that “all you need is inside.” She then returns to her own realm and the all-knowing Drosselmeyer, where she and her family make peace for a sparklingly joyous holiday ending.
Admittedly, the origins of the Nutcracker story are themselves strange. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was originally written in 1816. Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of the story was later transformed into Tchaikovsky’s well-known ballet. The original plot features violent mice galore — and plenty of material from which to draw horror.
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” certainly sets out to transform the story. The final effect of this creative license, however, is to leave audiences bewildered. In my case, it left me questioning what had just happened in the last two hours of my life.
The story is paced well, and while it often relies too heavily on special effects, they do bring new energy to several scenes. Unfortunately, the freakish and chaotic use of this energy is too strange to overcome.
If you are looking to kick-start your holiday season, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is not the way to go — particularly not with younger cousins or siblings. I would suggest saving your money and breaking out some favorite DVDs at home instead.