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American films

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms film review: Disney Christmas spectacle makes a courageous choice

  • Film trades fairy tale romance for a message of female empowerment, which works surprisingly well
  • Young star Mackenzie Foy puts in a good show as a fearless physics whizz
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 7:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 7:06am

3.5/5 stars

Although it thankfully lacks the sickly schmaltz that usually overshadows Christmas fare, this heavily rewritten version of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King doesn’t quite achieve the depth that it is striving for.

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But the way The Nutcracker and the Four Realms recasts the story as one of female empowerment, and tries to make its heroine a role model for girls considering careers in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) – rather than making her the usual suppliant fairy tale princess – is courageous and works surprisingly well.

It is possible that the reason behind the slew of bad reviews is because the film doesn’t try to deliver the hollow melodrama that audiences expect from a seasonal movie, and instead keeps a cooler head. That is because Screenwriter Ashleigh Powell has radically changed the original story, aiming to give it a modern kick which jives with the zeitgeist, and the result is imaginative.

Mackenzie Foy plays Clara, a Victorian girl who is transported to the magical Kingdom of the Four Realms after her mother dies. Clara is a self-assured girl with a good knowledge of science – especially physics – and she can fix just about anything with a pair of pliers.

Once in the kingdom – which is a kind of Teutonic fairyland with its basis in steampunk-like machinery – she joins with the glamorous Sugarplum Fairy (Keira Knightley) to battle the evil Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who is ensconced, Saruman-like, in a doomy forest. But are things really what they seem?

Foy puts in a good show as Clara, and it is refreshing to see a young female character who is not only fearless – she leads a troop of frightened soldiers on a dangerous mission into the forest – but can also outperform the boys at physics.

To emphasise Clara’s independence, the romance has been removed from the original story, so there are no cloying moments. Knightley channels Marilyn Monroe while playing the Sugarplum Fairy, which is charmingly odd, while Mirren puts in a typically intense performance as the scarred Mother Ginger.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the luxurious sets and costumes, which shy away from realism in favour of replicating the look of Bohemian-style Christmas cards. Meanwhile, a couple of shots of the orchestra, playing excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, are filmed to directly reference the Disney masterpiece Fantasia. It is a cool touch.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms opens on November 29

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