Movie Review ~ The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland

Director: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In the last few months we’ve really been treated to a lot of good entries at the movies. The dramas have soared (A Star is Born), the scary movies have been freaky fun (Halloween), and the romantic comedies (Crazy Rich Asians) have been at their fizzy best. The one movie we’ve been sorely lacking is an honest to goodness family film that isn’t filled with double entendres to go over the kiddies heads and lame-brained humor that make the parents shift grumpily in their seats. The arrival of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms signals the first purely PG movie I’ve seen in a long time, slightly too scary to get the golden G but worthy of consideration when planning a family outing to the movies this holiday season.

Young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) is getting ready to celebrate the first Christmas with her family after losing her mother. Her father (Matthew Macfadyen, Anna Karenina) is too bereaved to be able to emotionally connect with any of his children, least of all his inquisitive daughter and when they arrive for a holiday party at the expansive manse of Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Now Your See Me) father and daughter exchange harsh words that only divides them further.

Searching for a present from Drosselmeyer, Clara winds up entering a magical world of four realms that her mother had a connection to and which she now plays a part in overseeing. Accompanied by a kindly solder (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she makes her way to the palace and meets the rulers of three of the lands that have been awaiting her arrival. Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) comes from the Land of Flowers while Shiver (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) calls the Land of Snowflakes his home. The unofficial leader of the trio is the ever sweet but sturdy Sugar Plum (Keira Knightly, A Dangerous Method) who takes Clara through a tour of the realms and warns her of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), the leader of the Land of Amusement, the fourth realm.  As Clara takes in her surroundings, she decides to stay and help Sugar Plum get a special key from Mother Ginger that will help unlock not only a machine meant to protect the kingdom from Mother Ginger’s clutches but will also open a special egg of her mother’s. Journeying to the dark Land of Amusement with her solider is just one of the adventures Clara goes on and which introduces the first of several surprises along the way.

Continuing Disney’s tradition of turning celebrated classics into live-action extravaganzas, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is stuffed to the brim with feasts for the eyes. Though the film bears the name that suggests it will follow Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous music and seminal ballet, it’s only loosely inspired by the original short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. That being said, there are numerous musical cues that will sound familiar, part of the cheery score supplied by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight). One of the best moments in the movie is a centerpiece involving a ballet performed by famous ballerina Misty Copeland. Copeland’s got incredible charisma and her dancing nearly turns the movie into a 3D experience. If only she had more to do here, still, it’s more than easy to see why she’s risen to the top of her field.

Foy is a lovely lead, head-strong and boasting a more than passable English accent. She’s in almost every scene of the movie so it’s important to have someone in that central role that doesn’t grate on the nerves. While we’re talking about nerves, I’m not sure what Knightley was going for but her lines are delivered with a baby voiced tweet that seriously bugged me right from the start. This is a fantasy to be sure but every time she opened her mouth I was jolted back to reality. Grant and Derbez seem to be literally hiding behind their costumes and I’m wondering if their roles were cut back in editing. As much as I love Mirren and Freeman, not a ton of effort is put forth on their part which is disturbingly becoming the norm for Freeman.

While the production design is mostly fairy tale-perfect, some of the sets and costumes look like they’ve been in storage just waiting for another Santa Clause film. Disney has spent a boatload of money and it’s all up there on the screen for audiences to see. There are some that will find the film hollow yet pretty on the outside and maybe that’s a fair assessment but I found it an enjoyable bit of holiday entertainment on a scale we haven’t had in some time. Directors Lasse Hallstrom (The Hypnotist) and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) never the let movie spin too far out of control and punctuate it with a lovely finale.

Why Disney is releasing this movie so early in the season is beyond me. It’s likely they were weary of receiving a critical drubbing in a more targeted holiday release so instead they chose to open it just as the leaves were starting to change. I feel it would have been better suited to come out Thanksgiving weekend which would carry it into the Christmas holiday. I’m not yet in my Scrooge mood which is why I probably fell for the charms of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a little easier than I normally would. I still would whole-heartedly recommend this as an ideal family film.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

 

Synopsis: A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.

Release Date: November 2, 2018

Thoughts: It doesn’t take much to get me to go on a Disney journey so the first preview of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms already has me packing my bags.  Sure, it has a whiff of the irksome overproduction of Oz: The Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland and its sequel but it also has shades of The Chronicles of Narnia.  The visuals in this brief teaser alone are a feast for eyes that have been on a drab buffet lately.  Attempts to bring E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale to the screen before have debuted to various degrees of success, either focusing too much on story or too much on ballet/music.  Maybe new screenwriter Ashleigh Powell can make sense of it all and she’ll surely be helped by directors Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III).  Starring Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Morgan Freeman (Lucy), Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold), and Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar), The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t arrive for another year but this overture to the main event has generated some pleasant excitement this holiday season.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jurassic Park III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A decidedly odd couple with ulterior motives convince Dr. Alan Grant to go to Isla Sorna (the second InGen dinosaur lab.), resulting in an unexpected landing…and unexpected new inhabitants on the island.

Stars: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It took four years for Steven Spielberg to direct a sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park and with the problematic reception of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, the award-winning director was understandably cool to the thought about returning behind the camera for the third entry in 2011. Instead, Spielberg gave his old pal Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) the chance to direct and while the end result was a marked improvement over his lugubrious sequel, Jurassic Park III has its own set of problems to contend with.

Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil, The Vow, making a welcome return to the series) is facing budget cuts and a scientific community more interested in his adventures at Jurassic Park than the research he’s devoted his life too. When a wealthy couple want to hire him and his assistant (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) to guide them on a sight-seeing trip over Isla Sorna (Site B featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park), he reluctantly agrees as a way to make ends meet. Nevermind that series fans will know that Grant never set foot on Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park took place on Isla Nublar)…it’s a detail explained later but not very well. A crash landing is only the start to the bad luck Grant and company encounter as they try to survive an island with dinosaurs that have run amok and double-crossing members of their party.

At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) the film doesn’t take much time to breathe (or to think) and it’s probably best if you follow suit. Between some fairly terrible CGI dinosaurs and animatronic models that look like they were plucked out of your local science museum, the quality of the effects took a tumble here.  Odd colored dinosaurs look like they have graffiti on them and the raptors have mohawks…punk rock raptors? A big bad dino has a head that looks so fake you wonder if Johnston wasn’t making a spoof of the original film instead of a continuation of that story.

Performance-wise, only Neil (and a brief cameo from Laura Dern, The Master) have any real sense of urgency. Everyone else seems to be present to chew the scenery or be chewed on. Particularly bad is Téa Leoni who takes one too many pratfalls and apparently gets several haircuts during the 24 hours they are stranded on the island. Leoni also has an annoying way of running through the forest screaming and waving her arms and legs like she’s on fire, leading me to wonder if someone ever bothered to tell her she wasn’t in a comedy.

It’s not as boring as The Lost World; Jurassic Park but it’s far sillier. Depending on your mood, that could be either a good thing or a very bad thing. Watching it again recently I rolled my eyes a lot but didn’t have the outright disdain for it that I had when it was originally released. The script (with a contribution from Alexander Payne, Nebraska) feels like a tired third entry in a successful franchise, nothing more and nothing less. Its lackluster performance at the box office signaled the closing of this beleaguered park, a wise move if nothing of substance could be produced.

 

 

Down From the Shelf ~ Captain America: The First Avenger

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending USA ideals.

Stars: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, I was feeling all together ho-hum about the Marvel franchise so far. Full disclosure, I was more of a DC Comics fan growing up and the Avengers universe was a bit of a foreign entity to me. That being said, I always had an appreciation for Captain America…even allowing myself to like (just a little!) the disastrous 1990 failed attempt to bring the character back to the big screen.

In July of 2011, audiences had already met Iron Man (twice!) and Thor and while I liked the initial Tony Stark adventure way more than I liked the muddled snoozer centered on the Norse warrior, I wasn’t totally sold that Captain America would live up to my expectations. So it was a nice surprise to find that not only was Captain America: The First Avenger a hugely entertaining film but that it achieved this by relying on an old-fashioned style of filmmaking that put the characters first and the special effects second.

Beginning in the present with the discovery of a familiar calling card, the film jumps back in time to the early 40’s when America was in the early stages of World War II. Looking for a few good soldiers, the US recruited an entire generation of men and women to serve their country overseas. Longing to be of service to Uncle Sam, scrawny Steve Rogers (a digitally wimp-ized Chris Evans) can’t make it past the medical exam after half a dozen attempts. His passion catches the eye of a German scientist (Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Rogers is soon in basic training as a candidate to create a new soldier.

Under the watchful eye of a grumpy Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln) and pretty but tough Peggy Carter (dynamite Hayley Atwell), it isn’t long before Rogers is beefed up and buffed out thanks to a procedure concocted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed, as Iron Man’s pappy) that makes him a freedom fighting machine. As much a piece of pro-America propaganda as was produced in the same time period, Captain America: The First Avenger occupies the rest of its run length with Rogers weathering the good and bad of his newfound power and a deadly battle with the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) a nasty Nazi with a typically nasty Nazi plot for world domination.

With his all-American looks, Evans (The Iceman) is the perfect figure to play such an all-American hero…even though the effect to make him look small at the beginning of the film is kinda goofy. Though he had to be convinced more than once to take the role, he’s the right man for the job. Weaving is appropriately frightening as the red-faced terror and Jones hrumphs with the best of them. I still feel that Atwell’s plucky heroine is the best female character to date in the Marvel franchise…here’ s hoping the rumored television series based on her Agent Carter comes to life.

A worthy origin story, the film reminded me a lot of The Rocketeer, Disney’s notorious 1991 flop that coincidentally was also directed by Joe Johnston. I liked The Rocketeer, flaws and all, and Johnston seems to be trying to redeem himself in the eyes of comic book aficionados everywhere. Unlike Iron Man and Thor, I never felt like Captain America: The First Avenger existed only to bridge the gap to the film that would become The Avengers a year later in 2012. It does supply the last bit of info before that movie arrived but is still enjoyed on its own merit.

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