The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

There are a lot of things I see in this idea that might make sense for a Holiday movie. The opening is set at Christmas time, the motif uses the Nutcracker Ballet and music, and it is family friendly. Having seen the film however, I can’t really say who it is for. The music is incidental to the story, as is most of the Nutcracker story itself. This is a stand alone movie that is too weird for it’s own good. It lacks the charm to overcome it’s weaknesses and frankly, it is not very well acted.

Set in Victorian Times, this new telling of the Nutcracker focuses on a young girl named Clara, who is mourning her Mother but also trying to be a bit independent. The family dynamic suggests a close bond with her younger brother and older sister, but neither of them become a part of the fantasy here. Her widowed Father also mourns but in the style of keeping a stiff upper lip and conforming to expectations and appearances. This drives a wedge between the two of them which is more appropriate for a contemporary film than one set in the 19th Century. When Clara is lead into the fantasy Realms of the Nutcracker, it is then she discovers how her Mother created this world and brought it to life. The four realms are sometimes ignorant of the real world but at other times seem to be well aware of what is going on there. The world building in this fantasy makes very little sense and never seems consistent.

Morgan Freeman appears as Drosselmeyer, and in this story, he gives gifts and is an inventor, but not as good an inventor as Clara’s Mother or her. He is in the bookend segments of the film only. Occupying the main story, which involves a war between one of the realms and the others, is Keira Knightly as the Sugar Plum fairy and Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger. We at first do not understand what is at the base of the conflict, and at the end we are equally ignorant. The contrivances the story comes up with are just odd. The mouse king is not really a king, the evil is very unclear, and the ray gun that transforms toys into soldiers is ridiculous. The fact that it operates using the key that Clara is searching for is so forced as to make this film feel more mechanical than it intends to be.

No one in the movie is very good, with the exception of maybe Matthew Macfadyen as Clara’s father. Mirren gets little to do and Knightley overplays both the sweetness and the reveal. Jaden Fowora-Knight is well cast as the Nutcracker, because he is as wooden as you can get. He is a handsome young man with some potential but even this children’s story seems out of his grasp. Mackenzie Foy has the look that Clara needs but her skills are also a bit weak, She is trying to carry this whole production on her shoulders with her charm, and frankly that is an unfair assignment.

The production values on the film are impeccable however. This movie looks like a Christmas picture book and both the “real world” settings and the four realms are lavishly decorated and use color design in interesting ways. The CGI exteriors are picture perfect but the best things are the costumes and the practical set designs. There is a five minute segment where Clara watches an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker Ballet, and the stage craft there is the most inventive aspect of the film and it doesn’t use CGI at all. There is a stacking clown sequence that uses a combination of CGI and costumes to achieve it’s look and that was also worthy. Lasse Hallström with an assist from Joe Dante, directed this film. It reminds me a lot of the  Barry Levinson misfire from 1992, “Toys”. Both have mildly interesting premises and are being sold as Family Holiday movies, but despite amazing art direction, they just don’t connect with an audience.

A Dog’s Purpose

I am aware of the controversy that has cropped up leading to the release of this film and I will have a few comments at the end of the post. We are going to start with what made it to the screen first. There is an immediate way to recognize how the story  in the movie and the marketing of the film rely on the audience who loves dogs to simply show up. The name of the Director is never mentioned on the teaser poster, in the trailer, nor any material I’d seen leading up to the events this week. In fact, in most of the writing about the behind the scenes video clips that have leaked, they never said the name of the film’s director, it’s Lasse Hallström. This is a two time Academy Award nominated director, who has a string of well regarded movies on his resume, and there is not one “From the Director of…” tag lines to be seen in the studio material. It was not until the credits that I saw his name. This guy made “My Life as a Dog”, “The Cider House Rules”, “Chocolat” and a movie that I admired very much from just a couple of years ago, “The Hundred Foot Journey“. I can see why he was chosen to direct, and my guess is that his name will not put as many butts in the seats as a good picture of a dog.

People who love and own dogs will be able to identify with this film immediately. I think all of us have voiced our own dogs thoughts at least in our heads, but many, including me, have done it out loud with regularity. We anthropomorphize our animals all the time. With the right story line and voice casting, this movie should be catnip [yeah I know] to all the dog lovers out there. Who can resist the notion that our animals think about us and the things we do just they way we think about them. Comedic actor Josh Gad, who has several successful voice performances under his belt, manages to get the wistful, empathetic tone of a dog just right. “Bailey”, the lead character in our story, is just that kind of dog. The screenplay then provides several lives for “Baily” to lead, while clearly indicating which story is the main spine of this work.

Frankly, this movie could be just a kids film, but it is really much more. Let’s admit up front that it is an infernal machine. This device is designed to drain us of all moisture residing anywhere in our heads. Since the dog has several incarnations in the film, it is no spoiler to say that we get several on screen and off screen deaths of our hero. There are at least four times that a dog steps off the stage and it is likely to be accompanied by your tears. The dog is also a hero in the lives of most of his owners. He literally saves lives a couple of times, and also saves the heart of the people who’s lives he has entered. There are moments of dog/people love that will force your eyes to well up again. In his soft and warm voice, Gad provides “Bailey” with humor, pathos and an opportunity to consider the foibles of human existence.

The director manages to make all of this happen in an atmosphere that is usually great to look at, even when the environment is not very appealing. “Bailey’s” life as a German Shepard K-9 officer is not particularly warm except for two or three minutes. The warmth of the apartment and life he shares as a corgi is easier to relate to and see beauty in. It is however in the two most extended sequences, that pretty much bookend the story, that we can see Hallström do the thing that he is best at. He makes the countryside look like the farm life that city dwellers dream of and farm hands and rural types want their lives to be. Canada stands in for Michigan and the suburban scenes set in the sixties look like a fond memory of a mostly idyllic childhood. Ethan, the kid who loves and grows up with “Bailey” is played by three different actors. Both of the younger performers are engaging, but there are some story elements that are a bit much and they still seemed natural. The one place it fell down a bit was near the end of the first long segment. Ethan changes for various reasons but the performance does not quite get us there. It doesn’t matter too much because we are crying our eyes out at the dog’s story at that moment. This is a good piece of misdirection by the director from a plot point that feels a little artificial. In the last segment, things don’t start out so well for our canine hero, and this is another time when the director manages to let a few well placed shots and a montage of time convey the events in the story. We are spared an even uglier look at human behavior than we might have had otherwise.

Denis Quaid is Ethan all grown up. His story gets a bit short shrift. Ultimately we see that much like the other lives “Bailey” has come into, Ethan is lonely and in need. I was pleased to see Peggy Lipton in the film. I am currently re-watching “Twin Peaks” in preparation for it’s return this Spring, and Lipton as Norma is great. Her adult version of Hannah does not have a lot to do but it does work well with Mr. Quaid and it finishes off the movie in a way that should make audiences satisfied. My daughter read the book that the film is based on just last night. She told us after the movie about the ending of the book, and I’m glad that the film spared us another parting. There are just so many tears I can afford to surrender without having to give up my man card.




Now as for the controversy. The clips of the German Shepard in the water that have shown up on line are about the mildest form of “abuse” you can imagine. My dogs are more reluctant to get in the water at bath time and they are in greater danger than the canine star was. So either that makes me a heartlessly indifferent dog hater, or the world has gone mad with overly sensitized social media consumers. PETA, who is behind the boycott movement against this film, is an extremist organization that objects to animals being used for any entertainment purpose (or any other reason for that matter). It is in their interest to move mainstream thought on issues like this in their direction. Whales and Elephants are bigger targets (literally) but they have been more successful there. Pet ownership is something they also see as problematic. In a nation of pet owners, it’s hard to find a wedge issue to gain entry with. This is their opportunity to push the outside of the envelope. Ultimately I hope they fail because this movie is more likely to inspire responsible pet ownership and thus better treatment for dogs. The twisted logic of this “Animal Rights” organization deems anything which makes dog ownership seem appropriate, is undesirable.