Is any season as magical as Christmas?
Most years, the immediate answer to that question from the Stahlbaum family would be a loud and unanimous “No!”
Alas, this is not most years.
Marie Stahlbaum, the family’s beloved wife and mother, recently passed away. Christmas feels anything but magical without Marie as her widow, the stoic Mr. Stahlbaum, and her three children—Louise, Clara and Fritz—struggle to make sense of life without her.
Magic? There’s none. Only grief, emptiness and fear, especially as Mr. Stahlbaum seemingly acts as if nothing’s the matter, as if they should celebrate the holiday just like they would any other year. “Christmas comes whether we like it or not,” he intones. “We must do our best to enjoy it.”
And so Christmas Eve dutifully arrives. With it, presents for each of the children from their deceased mom. For Louise, Maria’s favorite dress. For young Fritz, toy soldiers.
For Clara? An exquisitely ornate metallic egg paired with an enigmatic message from her mother: “To my beautiful Clara: Everything you need is inside. Love, Mother.”
The egg has a lock … but no key. What kind of gift is that? Clara complains.
But it’s Christmas: No time for complaints. And no time to solve mysteries, either. Soon, Clara and her family are off to a lavish Christmas ball, one thrown each year by her godfather, a mysterious one-eyed inventor named Drosselmeyer. Each year, he gives each child a gift. To receive the gifts, they must follow a string that extends from an enormous Christmas tree throughout Drosselmeyer’s sprawling English mansion.
Clara’s string? Well, keeps going and going, up the stairs, down a long hallway that keeps getting darker and darker and … Wait! Who turned out all the lights?
When the “lights” come on again, Clara finds herself crawling out of a massive tipped-over tree trunk … and into a snowy forest. Her string? It’s tied to a beautifully lit Christmas tree, as is her tantalizing key.
But just as she grabs for it, a pesky little mouse snatches it away. And runs from her.
No mouse is going to keep Clara from unlocking the mystery of her egg. But as she chases him, Clara soon discovers that she’s not in Kensington (or even England) anymore. A living, breathing Nutcracker guards a bridge … and introduces her to a magical world divided into four realms, three of which are at war with the fourth.
And it turns out that Clara’s coveted key is also the key to resolving that conflict.
With the aid of the Nutcracker, whose name is actually Captain Philip Hoffman, Clara pursues the key-pilfering mouse into the forbidden and foreboding territory of Mother Ginger, a renegade leader who presides over the now dilapidated and dysfunctional Land of Amusement. Philip bravely goes with her, despite protestations about how dangerous it is.
Once they return to the castle at the heart of the Four Realms, Clara meets the other three rulers: Sugar Plum (who rules over the Land of Sweets), Shiver (the Land of Snowflakes) and Hawthorne (the Land of Flowers). They inform Clara that the key she seeks is the same one they need to unlock a machine that will enable them to deal with grim Mother Ginger once and for all.
With the help of Philip and other soldiers at the castle, Clara bravely plunges into the Land of Amusement once more in pursuit of her key—which does indeed prove important, but not exactly in the way that Clara had thought. By movie’s end, Clara will need to summon all of her bravery, ingenuity and determination to help the Four Realms get back to a place of order and peace. Philip, especially, proves to be a brave helper for Clara as she faces many obstacles in her quest.
All those external obstacles, however, are mirrored by some internal ones, too—which gets at the movie’s deeper themes. Clara nearly capitulates to doubt and discouragement at one point, wondering if she has what it takes to accomplish the perilous tasks at hand. But the movie ultimately emphasizes that her mother’s parting message—and legacy, really—to Clara was encouraging the girl to see that she already has everything she needs within her to be the person she’s meant to be. Clara doesn’t need some magical power from the outside to succeed. She needs to embrace the courage and strength that already reside within her heart.
When Clara fully grasps that idea and sees (though flashbacks and plot twists) how her mother wanted her to embrace it, it frees her from the burden of always looking backward. Instead of being shackled to grief, Clara’s instead free to embrace her mother’s legacy of grace, goodness and strength. And that character development enables Clara realize how judgmental (and unfair) she’s been for believing that her father wasn’t affected as deeply by Marie’s death as Clara was.
The land of the Four Realms blends technology and magic, and we learn that it has connections to an inventor back in the real world. Apart from the magical, fairy tale-esque goings on here, however, there’s really nothing that could be construed as spiritual content. And all references to Christmas early in the film seem more related to a secular understanding of the holiday.
None, really, save a few women’s dresses that expose a negligible bit of cleavage.
The closing credits show shirtless male ballet dancers in tights, as well a female dancer in a ballerina outfit who also reveals some cleavage (though this is all normal ballet garb).
Once the action gets underway, we see battles between soldiers and Mother Ginger’s minions, which are comprised of mice (who can form into one giant über-mouse known as the Mouse King) and personal guards that sort of split the difference between Humpty Dumpty-like eggs and clowns.
The latter can be quite creepily menacing in their shape-shifting, clownish appearance, and they could be frightening to younger or sensitive viewers. (We’re not quite in Wizard of Oz flying monkey territory here, but not too far off, either.)
As the story unfolds, there are more clashes, battles and some moments of peril for Clara and her companions. One troublesome character is ultimately dealt with via a magical (and slightly sad) transformation that renders said character harmless.
Other than that, however, the clanging action-sequence battles can be fairly intense (again, this is especially true for younger viewers). Animated but emotionless and hollow toy soldiers get thrown about, but no one is ever really injured or killed.
We hear one surprising use of “d–n,” from Drosselmeyer, and one exclamation of “oh my god.” We also hear the word “poo.”
Not everything is what it seems in the Four Realms, and not everyone’s motives are what they appear to be, either.
Disney’s latest live-action update/reboot of a familiar story can’t help but bring to mind several other classic fantasy stories, namely The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.
Like all of those stories, this one features a plucky young heroine brimming with moxie yet still grappling with significant inner struggles. With each uncertain step and choice she must make, Clara (played with engaging aplomb by rising teen star Mackenzie Foy) grows in her understanding of who she is and her confidence that she can successfully fulfil her unexpected role as the Realms’ rescuer.
As is often the case with Disney stories, one main message revolves around self-reliance. Clara must relinquish her doubts and fears, choosing instead to act boldly and to trust in her very real strengths. That’s a good message, as far as it goes—just so long as parents balance it with the understanding that we often need to lean on other’s strengths (and especially God’s!) as well.
Speaking of families, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms illustrates some poignant truths in that real-life realm as well. We see that grief can be difficult and disorienting, that we must be gentle and understanding while helping other family members cope with a significant loss. That said, the film also illustrates that a loving family can work through even the most traumatic losses if they stick together, though the way forward may be difficult to discern at times.
The final issues families with young children need to be aware of is that some scenes involving Mother Ginger and her egg-like clown helpers could be unnerving for little viewers. Those moments tend to resolve quickly, but parents of sensitive kiddos might still want to exercise caution with this one. We also hear one truly perplexing profanity and a misuse of God’s name that mildly mar this otherwise family-friendly film.
All in all, Disney’s latest offers a rollicking adventure, an admirable young heroine, and solid messages about growing in courage, conviction and confidence.
For more ideas regarding healthy risk-taking as well as helping children deal with grief, check out the following Focus on the Family resources:
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.