The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

Flushed Away


Flushed Away

Roddy St. James wanted a couple of slugs with dinner, but this isn't what he had in mind.

(2006) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis, Shane Richie, Kathy Burke, David Suchet, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Rawlinson, Susan Duerden, Miles Richardson.  Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell

It is no secret that a life of privilege and ease and a life of work and stress are as worlds apart as can be. Night and day doesn’t even begin to describe it. We all aspire to be in the penthouse, but generally most of us have to settle for scraps floating around in the basement.

Nowhere is this allegory more succinct than in Flushed Away. In this animated feature, a pet mouse named Roddy St. James (Jackman) lives in pampered gentility in the fashionable Kensington district of London. His home is a magnificent, plush cage with all the amenities a rodent could aspire to. Better still, when the human inhabitants leave the house, as they do frequently, Roddy gets free run of the house. Being a refined and sophisticated mouse, he looks for the right outfit for the right occasion, be it volleyball at the beach or fine dining. He has a wardrobe – well, it belongs to the dolls but it fits him nicely – and prefers the studied elegance of a tux to just about anything else in his closet.

With England gripped by World Cup fever – the finals are just a few days away, and the plucky Brits are taking on the Germans – Roddy finds there is one thing that he doesn’t have in this existence of plenty – company. He is a pampered pet, but a pet nonetheless and it is a cage where he sleeps, no matter how gilded the environment.

That all changes when the plumbing backs up a bit and out jumps Sid (Richie) from the depths below. He is a sewer rat with a cockney accent and a foul leather jacket. Sid takes one look at the new digs and decides he wants to stay permanently. Roddy is aghast at the concept, but plots to get rid of the unwelcome guest. He escorts Sid to the bathroom and offers him a nice Jacuzzi bath. Sid, being a worldly rat, is not fooled by Roddy’s weak scheme. Instead, he gives Roddy a nice push into the “Jacuzzi” and pulls the lever to activate the bubbles. Of course, Roddy is flushed down the toilet.

He winds up in the sewers, far from his beloved home. Everything is strange and unfamiliar, especially the slugs who are everywhere, squealing in high-pitched terror. Then, Roddy finds himself in a city…a copy of London made out of garbage and debris, inhabited by rats. It is a wondrous place, with peg-legged salts (whose wooden legs are made of pencil stubs) selling fish and chips…well, fish…well, it looks a lot like fish…from the harbor side. Roddy wants nothing to do with all of this, however. Like Dorothy before him, he just wants to go home.

The only ship captain brave enough to travel the dangerous waters of the sewers to the world above is a lady named Rita (Winslet), captain of the “Jammy Dodger.” She is plucky and brave, but suspicious. Seems there’s a nefarious criminal after her – one Toad (McKellan). She has something of his – well, it was hers before it was his but that’s not the way he sees it – a ruby. Roddy arrives just as a couple of his nastier henchmen – Whitey (Nighy), an ex-lab rat, and Spike (Serkis), a street-smart hooligan – come to retrieve the Toad’s property.

They wind up capturing the pair, especially since Roddy, who doesn’t care how he gets home as long as someone gets him there, sells Rita down the river. However, when Toad (as most criminal masterminds will) decides to deep-freeze them both, Rita rescues the both of them, taking a critical item that Toad wants even more than the Ruby (which is just glass, by the way) since it is central to his plans of taking over.

Once Spike, Whitey and their fellow henchmen are unsuccessful at recapturing the pair, the disgusted Toad calls in the big guns; the French super-criminal Le Frog (Reno) and his group of miming, prone-to-surrender French Frogs. In the meantime, Roddy meets Rita’s family and begins to realize just what he is missing. Still, he has to get back home and promises Rita real jewels to get him there. She may not trust him, but she is loyal to a fault, particularly when a bargain has been struck. Still, with the villainous amphibians on their trail, can they make it to the penthouse once again?

Aardman Studios, the creators of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit are responsible for this. It is their first foray into computer generated animation – they are known for their stop motion animation, which doesn’t work very well with water, which much of this movie is set on or near. They brought in veterans of Shrek to help them, and so this has the look and feel of an Aardman film without the thumbprints – although the software written for the movie actually digitally inserts imperfections into the characters to make it look more like a traditional Aardman movie.

Like most Aardman movies, Flushed Away skewers British life and frailties (although they go after other nationalities, with the ugly American tourists and the supercilious French) and carries a tremendous amount of in-jokes. For example, when Roddy is going through his wardrobe, he finds a yellow spandex outfit that looks suspiciously like what Wolverine wears in the comics (Jackman, of course, plays Wolverine in the X-Men series). A cockroach is seen reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Roddy encounters a Nemo-like clownfish in the sewers.

The real attraction here are the slugs. Although at first it looks like they’re going to be a one-joke occurrence, they settle into a role as a kind of Greek chorus, singing popular songs to emphasize various points during the movie. They never fail to amuse; in fact, every time they came onscreen, I wound up laughing, many times out loud. They’re by far the best part of the movie, not unlike Scrat the Squirrel in Ice Age. If the movie does well, don’t be surprised if we see a lot more of the slugs over the next couple of years.

The movie is well-cast, with Jackman bringing a kind of dorky charm that he displays from time to time onscreen (see Kate and Leopold). His chemistry with Winslet is surprisingly good, and Reno has a great time lampooning a character he played in Leon: The Professional. The problem I have here is a minor quibble; the story is a bit unnecessarily complex. They have this whole subplot with the ruby and then cast it aside very abruptly when Toad sets his eyes on something else. That left the ruby kind of superfluous; they’d have been better off without it and just have Toad go for the thing he really wants from the get go, instead of having to contrive for Rita to steal it. I guess they must have needed to pad the running time a bit.

Still in all, this is real entertaining for kids and their parents alike. The slugs are some of the funniest characters this year, and to my mind this is right up there with Cars and The Ant Bully as the best kids movie of the year. Considering this is an Aardman production, that’s not surprising at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all Aardman productions, this is big time quality all the way, and plenty funny for both kids and adults. The slugs are hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the British in-jokes may not necessarily play well outside of the U.K.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit crude and a few bad words, but otherwise suitable for most kids and certainly all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert DeNiro and William Shatner were also considered for the part that eventually went to Andy Serkis.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of extra slug songs. There is also a pipes maze in a fair-to-middlin’ kids section.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on a production budget of $149M. The movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ninja Assassin