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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2018)

12. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Co-directed with Lasse Hallstrom

In their continuing quest to dominate all of popular culture, Disney has fully committed themselves to cranking out live action remakes of their beloved animated classics. Despite, or most likely because, these movies are totally unnecessary nostalgia grabs, they make millions upon millions of dollars. We, once again, have the record breaking success of Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland” to thank for this. It's gotten to the point where Disney is doing live action remakes of fairy tales they haven't even turned into cartoons yet. The studio has never done a proper version of “The Nutcracker.”  Yet, in 2018, they would release a movie that would, for all intends and purposes, look and feel like a big budget live action version of a Disney animated adaptation of the famous ballet. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” would, naturally, be released around Christmas time last year.

But, if you're like me, right about now you might be thinking “Wait, why are you talking about this movie for a Joe Johnston retrospective? Didn't Lasse Hallstrom direct “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms?”” And, yes that is correct! Yet, when preparing to do this Report Card, I found the movie also listed on Joe Johnston's IMDb page. It turns out, after Hallstrom would direct the entire movie, Disney would call in Johnston – pleased with his work on “Captain America,” I guess – to direct a month of re-shoots. These were apparently so significant, and contributed so much to the final film, that Disney deemed it appropriate to give Johnston a directorial credit alongside Hallstrom.

It's Christmas Eve sometime in the Victorian era. Benjamin Stahlbaum has recently lost his wife, which has traumatized his daughter Clara. As it's the holidays, he gives his children the gifts their mother intended for them. Clara receives an egg-shaped music box which can only be opened with a special key. She accompanies her family to a Christmas ball, where her godfather – an inventor and friend of her mother named Drossellmeyer – gives her brother the gift of a nutcracker. Clara then follows a piece of string bearing her name into a magical wintry world. She finds her key but it is stolen by a strange mouse. Clara learns that her late mother visited this place once before, imbuing the citizens who live in these four realms with life. Now, a conflict is brewing between the rulers of the various kingdoms.

The short story and ballet that inspired “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” was a classical fairy tale about a girl visiting a magical world full of strange inhabitants, predating better known examples of this story like Wonderland and Oz. Instead of doing a direct adaptation of that, Disney tries to build an elaborate mythology out of E.T.A. Hoffman and Tchaikovsky's characters and concepts. So we have a magical world, with inhabitants brought to life with a glowing substance. Each of the four realms is devoted to a different concept, like sweets, toys, snowflakes, or flowers. These are extremely cutesy ideas, involving Candyland like villages made of pastries or a forest populated only with Christmas trees. Trying to marry a serious mythos to such frilly concepts creates a disconnect in the viewer's head.

Honestly, it couldn't be more obvious that Disney engineered “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” as a way to recreate past successes. A very British young girl wandering into a magical alternate universe, first visiting a snowy forest, obviously brings “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” adaptation Disney was previously involved in to mind. Yet the film is clearly most emulating itself after Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland.” Both movies involves a young girl having a crazy adventure in an magical world, populated with colorful characters in bizarre outfits. Hallstrom even throws in some blatantly Burton-esque imagery. Such as a spiral staircase, a gloomy forest, or creepy and very round clowns that also act as living nesting dolls. The film is so blatant to remake other blockbuster that it doesn't have much of an identity of its own.

And, of course, Burton's “Alice in Wonderland” was trying to fit a much older type of story into a “Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings” shaped box. So the protagonist of the film has a bland Chosen One narrative, Clara prophesied to return and finish the job her mother began. There's a number of wise mentor characters that can direct her on the correct path. Moreover, the movie veers into epic fantasy action from time to time... Which is about as awkward a fit for the material as you'd imagine. Did you ever think a “Nutcracker” movie would have Helen Mirren attacking giant tin soldiers with a whip? Or feature a magical laser beam that can turn inanimate objects into living things? At least the film never quite explodes into full blown combat, which would have been even more inappropriate for a fucking Christmas story.

The main thing “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” has going for it is its fucking insane production design. Even before things get all magical, the film features fantastically opulent sets and costumes. A maze outside the Christmas ball is quite a lovely design. Once we are in the Four Realms, the production design goes way over-the-top. There's an entire village made of candy, elaborate sleighs, a huge castle, ruined circus tents. More of the film appears to be practical than you might immediately assume too. The costume are similarly crazy. The Sugar Plum Fairy has hair made of cotton candy. Richard E. Grant has a dress suit made of icicles and there's another guy covered in flowers. It is the definition of gaudy but I have to admire the sheer display of imagination here.

Probably my favorite thing about “The Nutcracker” is the clear affection the film has for elaborate clockwork mechanism, one of the few elements it really takes from Hoffman's writing. The movie opens with Clara playing with an elaborate mouse trap. There's the fancy music box that motivates much of the story. This is blown up to giant size when Clara is taken inside an enormous clock, showing her how time operates in this alternate universe. However, like a few things, the film eventually takes this too far. By the time a giant clockwork Helen Mirren shows up, fighting a smaller army of still-large tin soldiers, things have officially gotten way too goofy.

For all its cartoonish opulence, “The Nutcracker” is at least attempting an honest theme. Clara is still recovering from the death of her mother. Her father has acted cold in the aftermath of that and the two haven't started to heal together yet. Eventually, this element manifests in the form of a cheap plot twist. You see, Helen Mirren's Ginger Queen is not the actual villain of this story, a tyrant seeking the subjugation of the Four Realms. It's in fact the Sugar Plum Fairy who has secretly been plotting control the entire time. This is all born of her inability to forgive Clara's mother for leaving, dying, and never returning. Attempting to incorporate a serious theme into such an overblown fantasy is a good thing, I guess. But the movie doesn't really go about it the best way.

Due to being a studio largely devoted to producing family films, Disney has often scooped up talented young actors and actresses to put in their movies. So, after giving a buzzy performances in “Interstellar,” Mackenzie Foy gets her chance to star in a Disney flick. Foy is a talented actress. She is certainly capable of carrying a motion picture of this size. She gives a decent performance, taking things seriously and being convincing on camera. However, one can't help but feel like Foy is not especially invested in the material. She's going through the motions and doing a good job of it without really pluming the depths of her abilities.

There's a number of recognizable faces in the supporting cast. Morgan Freeman shows up as Drosselmeyer, doing the wise old mentor routine he has done in a ton of other movies. However, Freeman is good at this and his scenes are a highlight of the movie. Casting Helen Mirren as a magical being with cracked China doll skin is a neat idea but Mirren's more entertaining instincts are handcuffed by the routine script. Befitting the overall tone of the material, Keira Knightly looks very silly in her bright pink outfits and acts accordingly ridiculous. It's a grotesquely over-the-top performance but there's some fun in that. Despite playing the title character, Jayden Fowora-Knight doesn't actually get much to do. However, he is a pleasant enough performer.

Watching “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” I really kept my eyes peeled for any sign that Joe Johnston had a hand in creating this movie. You don't really feel it much. The scenes set in the gloomy, grey forest remind me a little of Johnston's work on “The Wolfman.” The only scene that feels like his style at all is a sequence where an army goes into the woods, exploring an abandoned carnival, which is then attacked by a horde of mice, which form into an enormous man-like shape. (There's a Wilhelm scream in there too, which is how I know Johnston really directed this scene.) That's about it though. Hallstrom's fingerprints are evident throughout, with the soft and warm glow of many scenes. He oversaw the film's post-production, suggesting the movie truly belongs to him. However, Hallstrom has never made a CGI-packed spectacle of this level before. So you get the impression “The Nutcracker” was directed more by committee and assembled by effects experts and editors than any one man.

Honestly, and this should maybe comes as a “no shit” revelation, but the best scenes in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” are the ones devoted to ballet. While at the Christmas ball, there's a moment paying homage to “Fantasia” – which I guess sort of, kind of is a Disney animated adaptation of “The Nutcracker?” – where Freeman conducts an orchestra from behind a colorful screen. Later, while in the four realms, the history of the place is explained via a ballet. Which is an admittedly interesting way to get the exposition out of the way. Lastly, over the end credits, a more stripped down version of the various dances from the ballet are performed, also against colorful shading and lights. Honestly, all of these scenes just further convince me that Disney should've adapted “The Nutcracker” as an animated movie, instead of a live action epic.

As I've said in the past, there's always a chance a holiday movie may become a future classic through repeated seasonal television screenings, even if it flopped in theaters. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” definitely failed to attract an audience upon release last November. It grossed slightly more than its production budget at the global box office, obviously falling short of the kind of amount needed for a film of this scale to turn a profit. I have no idea if the movie will get shown a lot on TV around December in the future but I kind of doubt it'll become a future classic. Aside from some crazy costumes and sets, there's very little memorable about this one at all. [Grade: C-]

Going into this Director Report Card, I wondered if Joe Johnston would emerge as a proper auteur or if he would remain a workman of sorts. Well, I think it's fair to say Johnston has a style of his own, in-between the similar visuals of many of his films and the love of nostaglic adventure that drives most of his features. It's also interesting that his career has swung wildly between box office successes and pricey flops. In his own way, he's a filmmaker of huge ambition who always swings for the fences, even when the material isn't quite deserving of that level.

So what's next for the guy? Not much seems to be on the horizon right now. A few years back, he was attached to direct the next installment in the "Chronicles of Narnia" franchise, "The Silver Chair." Johnston also claimed the film would be his last. Since Netflix is rebooting the "Narnia" series, it looks like Johnston's version won't be getting made. How does that bode for his retirement announcement? Did directing "The Nutcracker" fill his desire to make a Christmas-adjacent fantasy film? I don't know, though I certainly hope he tries making another film eventually. I've enjoyed most of the dude's flicks. 

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