When I was young, I read “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” My mother had many obscure and unusual stories and fairytales. I remember loving the story, especially with its lessons on looking past a person’s looks and loving the person within. When I was older, I loved music, especially classical music and one of my favorite composers is Tchaikovsky, who wrote The Nutcracker Ballet, one of the most beautiful ballets and some of the most incredible music. When I heard they were retelling the story, I was a touch concerned until I saw the trailers. It looked visually stunning with an exciting cast. After seeing it in the theater, I am delighted to say that it also is elegant in the use of Tchaikovsky’s music and in utilizing elements from the original story as well as the ballet. It is enchanting and entertaining.
As the film begins, the main character Clare (Mackenzie Foy) is showing her younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) an invention she has built to catch mice. Their older sister, Louise (Ellie Bamber) interrupts as they must get ready for a Christmas party. As they go downstairs, we learn that their mother is deceased, leaving them grieving with their father, Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen).
He gives all three gifts from their mother. Fritz is given tin soldiers, Louise one of her mother dresses and Clara, a locked silver egg with no key. Clara is upset, more so because she misses her mother terribly and isn’t in the mood to celebrate but their father insists they go to the party, held by their godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman).
As the night continues, Clara meets with her godfather, who promises to help her with the lock. Gifts are given to the children but Drosselmeyer’s gift for Clara leads her on a wondrous quest to a fantastic world, where dolls and toys live and where Clara must use her wits and the help of a brave nutcracker soldier, Phillip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight) to try and find the key promised by Drosselmeyer before it is used for evil purposes by the Mouse King and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). Along the way, she meets the rulers of the realms, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley). If she can retrieve the key, braving the ominous Fourth Realm and Mother Ginger, Clara might bring harmony back to the once peaceful lands.
One of the keys to why this film is so charming is the music. It would not be the Nutcracker without at least some reference to Tchaikovsky’s music but I felt Disney did so much more than just a reference. Throughout the movie, the music from the ballet punctuates and underscores the action. Most of the time it is a quiet underpinning but at other moment’s it swells to become integral to the scene. It is performed organically, never superseding the story but part of it.
Another important aspect to me is the references and weaving of other versions of the story within this retelling. Drosselmeyer is still an inventor in the story as he was in the original short story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Elements of the short story are tossed in at various points, such as the Nutcracker soldier named Hoffman like the author of that original tale. When Clara is entertained by the rulers, she is treated to a ballet with Tchaikovsky’s music with a scene from the original Disney Fantasia. The tin soldiers referenced in the movie are part of various retellings and even the theme, that of seeing past false appearances, past what is perceived as ugliness to see the truth, is part of this story as well.
The visuals are absolutely stunning, both the scenes at Drosselmeyer’s party, with the guests in all their finery to the four realms. When Clara enters the realms, the forest and everything around her is believable, rich in detail and wondrous. It is like Nutcracker meets Narnia and I was delighted. The clothes and the designs for Shiver, Hawthorne and Sugar Plum are all beautiful and inventive, carrying details from the ballet and Disney’s Fantasia. The mouse king and his fellow mice were well designed as is Mother Ginger and her cadre of clowns. Everything is a feast for the eyes, colorful and rich.
The acting matches the visuals and the music. Mackenzie Foy is lovely as Clara, her ability to display grief, anger and fierce determination worthy of a much older actress. Matthew Macfadyen is equally impressive as her father, gifted in his ability to portray warmth and sternness as a backdrop to sadness. Jayden Fowora-Knight is solid as the nutcracker soldier, brave and loyal. Morgan Freeman can do no wrong but his kindness and wisdom as Drosselmeyer add depth to the role. Keira Knightley absolutely appeared to be having a wild time as Sugar Plum and Helen Mirren was her usual stellar self as Mother Ginger.
The movie is not perfect. It is a fairly straightforward film, carrying most of the elements of the classic story. It is predictable. I knew most of the actions Clara and the other characters were going to take but it was still so well laid out that this did not bother me. There is far more depth to Clara, her father, and Mother Ginger than most of the other characters. I would have liked to have seen a touch more from the Nutcracker as the titular character of the movie but his role was solid and aided Clara in her quest. I did find it a nice touch that Clara is an inventor and she is the hero of the movie.
If you like the ballet or the original story, I feel you will love this movie. It is visually beautiful to watch, the music is incredible and it is entertaining for a family of all ages. I loved the tiny references to all the other versions, especially the nod to the original short story and Disney’s Fantasia. I thought the music was woven throughout organically and if you like sitting through the credits, you will get an extra surprise. It is every bit what I hoped for and I was indescribably charmed, a perfect reinterpretation for the modern day.
Rating: 4 out of 5 keys.
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