March 25, 2019 Nutcracker Nonsense
I just watched Disney’s 2018 movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and I was disappointed. To be fair, I had pretty high hopes for it. When I was in 6th Grade we did a production of The Nutcracker and I fell in love with the music and story over twenty years ago. When I was in 12th Grade I got to see a professional ballet performance of it as well.
So what was Disney thinking? The movie barely resembles the tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by ETA Hoffman from 1816. It barely even resembles the Tchaikovsky Ballet. To begin with the Nutcracker isn’t even a Nutcracker. In the book and the ballet he is the wooden doll who cracks nuts come to life. In the movie it is a boy with a name that is barely mentioned. Disney leaves out the entire back story of how the Mouse King was killed by one of Drosselmeyer’s traps and the Mouse Queen transformed the Prince into a Nutcracker as revenge. The Nutcracker is like German version of Beauty in the Beast in a way, but Disney ignored that angle entirely.
In the book the main character’s name is Marie while in the ballet it was change to Clara. In the movie they explain the Marie was Clara’s mother. Somehow Marie found the Four Realms and became Queen. But then she left and had a family. Before she could return, she died. How she died or why is not really focused on.
Disney has Clara go to Drosselmeyer’s mansion for a Christmas Ball where she discovers a portal to the Four Realms. In the book Marie is playing with the Nutcracker and her other toys when they come to life. The Nutcracker engages the Mouse King with the Seven Heads in battle right there in Marie’s home. In the movie the battle is moved to the end of the movie as a Climax instead of being the jumping off point.
In the book Marie falls into a glass cabinet and injures her arm. She awakes and recounts the tale of the magical battle. Her mother and father scold her for taking about her dreams as if they were real.
The next night The Nutcracker returns and asks for a sword. He kills the 7 headed Mouse King and takes Marie to the Land of Dolls as a reward. It is there that she is entertained by a series of dancers. In the Ballet we are treated to performances by Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Danish and Russian Dancers who all represent various treats. The Spanish are associated with Chocolate, the Arabians are associated with Coffee, The Chinese are associated with Tea and so on. The Sugar Plum Fairy brings candy.
For some reason Disney decided to make The Mouse King a minor threat and make Sugar Plum the villain. I am not sure why. Yes, it was unexpected, but it seemed rather unnecessary. I guess they needed to fill the plot hole left the absence of the Nutcracker back story.
Sugar Plum seemed to represent the anger that Clara felt toward her mother for leaving her. Even though she knew her mother did not choose to die, Clara was still struggling with feelings of abandonment. Sugar Plum’s greedy grab for the Throne could have been a projection of Clara’s own bitterness.
Mother Ginger in the Disney movie was perhaps a stand in for her feelings toward her mother. Clara’s deceased mother was at first feared and than vilified before coming to Clara’s aid. It turned out Mother Ginger was a hero, not the villain.
The book and the ballet focused more on the relationship between the two main characters though. Marie comes back from the Land of Dolls and is met by Drosselmeyer’s Nephew, who happens to be the Nutcracker. The young man has broken the curse and is quite handsome. The book hints at a possible romance blooming between Marie and the Prince.
The subtext of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is the struggle between being a child and growing up. Marie played with dolls and craved sweets like a little girl, but as the story unfolds we see her start to embrace the more adult world of romance.
The book is a product of German Romanticism, which examines the power of imagination. The Natural and Supernatural world played a large part in shaping their perspective. Certainly, The Nutcracker embodies those sublime characteristics. However, the Disney movie moved away from the root tale to embrace the successful formula found in their other live action adaptation—Alice In Wonderland.
Alice was rebellious and full of feminist ideals. She marched into battle against the Red Queen and won. This template was laid over The Nutcracker so we have Clara taking over the role of Alice. The Four Realms is her Wonderland. Her White Rabbit was a mouse who stole the key to her Magical Egg. The Polichinelles reminded me of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb. The problem is that The Four Realms is does not have the same illogical logic to it. It is a chaotic world that was not well developed.
We also see bits of The Wizard of Oz in the Disney movie. Like Dorothy, Clara meets the ruler of the land and is sent to take out the opposition. In this way Sugar Plum is like The Wizard and Mother Ginger is like the Wicked Witch. The life size Tin Soldiers are like The Tin Woodman.
In the end The Nutcracker is left in the Four Realms and Clara returns to the mansion. She visits with Drosselmeyer and then finds her father. She explains what she learned in the Four Realms and how she is learning to deal with her grief better. The movie ends with a father daughter dance rather than Clara marrying the Prince.
I suppose they were trying to pull away from the traditional Fairy Tale mold. And that might have been welcomed had we had a dozen other versions of this tale. While Mickey Mouse and Barbie have all taken a turn at telling their versions, we’ve never had a big budget blockbuster or even a full length animated version for that matter. I feel like they really should have stuck with the source material.
The only real compliment I can give The Nutcracker and The Four Realms is that the visuals were stunning. I just wish I would have been drawn into the world more instead of feeling like I was merely looking at a pretty picture book. If you haven’t read ETA Hoffman’s tale The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, I suggest you find a copy. It is a magical tale that no movie or even ballet has done justice.