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With this lavish, enthusiastically loopy live-action adaptation of The Nutcracker, some purists might be wondering why Disney would take a perfectly lovely classical ballet and go crazy with it.

Movie review

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Starring Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightley
Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
100 minutes
★★★1/2 out of five

But those who love the RWB’s annual holiday tradition know the 126-year-old ballet is already a little kooky. Under all that beauty and festive cheer runs a line of surreal, Freudian strangeness.

Scriptwriter Ashleigh Powell keeps many of the basic elements of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann tale: a young girl, a Christmas party and a magical realm of sweets and toys, mice and nutcrackers.

Beginning in a fantastical version of Victorian London, the story introduces Clara (the very able and appealing Mackenzie Foy). A girl on the brink of womanhood, she’s more interested in Newton’s Laws than attending fancy parties, especially after the death of beloved mother, who was also known for being "clever." Clara is angry with her father (Matthew Macfadyen) for what she feels is his insufficient grief.

Clara is cheered by a visit with her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, all sly gravitas), an eccentric inventor. His Christmas present to her is a mysterious key that leads her into a world where she is a princess, albeit a very self-sufficient and democratic one.

There Clara meets a helpful nutcracker named Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), as well as the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley, who’s having a perfectly wonderful time camping it up). Clara learns about the divided kingdom’s feud with Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), whose realm is a dark, rundown carnival filled with coulrophobia-inducing 19th-century clowns and spooky, looming automatons. There is also a Mouse King, who is not one giant mouse but a shifting shape made up of thousands of roiling rodents.

Mackenzie Foy is Clara, Keira Knightley is Sugar Plum Fairy, Jaden Fowara-Knight is Phillip, Eugenio Derbez is Hawthorne and Richard E. Grant is Shiver. (Disney photos)

Mackenzie Foy is Clara, Keira Knightley is Sugar Plum Fairy, Jaden Fowara-Knight is Phillip, Eugenio Derbez is Hawthorne and Richard E. Grant is Shiver. (Disney photos)

All is not as it appears, however, either in the four realms or in Clara’s family back at home. Our heroine’s journey involves her growing understanding of this truth.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a tremendously good-looking film. (It might be worth splashing out for the 3D version.) Directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, working with gifted costume designer Jenny Beavan and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, create spectacular vistas of castles and snowbound landscapes populated with wondrous creatures. Many of the characters, including clockwork mice, life-size tin soldiers and those uncanny clowns, are on a tipping point between scary and comic.

Helen Mirren is Mother Ginger.</p>

Helen Mirren is Mother Ginger.

There are musical snippets of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score, and one scene with an orchestra briefly references Disney’s 1940 classic Fantasia, which had its own trippy moments. There are some short sequences of ballet, with (all too brief) performances by dance superstars Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin.

Just as important as all this gorgeousness, however, is the film’s inventive and original tone, which fearlessly embraces its source material’s weirdness. When 21st-century people think of fairy tales, they often think of happy endings. But there are deeper, darker undercurrents to those old stories, and this Nutcracker, both sugar plum sweet and just a little unsettling, understands that.


Mackenzie Foy is Clara

Mackenzie Foy is Clara

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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