Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Latest on Disney's 'The Nutcracker and the Four Realms'

The Nutcracker by Niroot Puttapipat
(All silhouette illustrations by Puttapipat)
Although the film isn't due out until 2018, Disney's Nutcracker and the Four Realms keeps popping up in casting coup headlines and looking at the list below, confirmed as of October 15, 2016, it's quite a stellar one.

The most recent addition, announced this last week, (October 11, 2016), is that comedy favorite Miranda Hart, has just signed on to play a comical fairy named Dew Drop. While you'd think that might gives you some clues as to how this film might develop, the rest of the casting makes it difficult to pin down, though the possibilities are intriguing.

We know the movie will be a fantasy and family movie, with at least some ballet, and there will be funny moments. Though funny tends to be stock-in-trade for family fare, how that happens can be surprising, so we hope that we are (surprised in a good way).

While news of Hollywood stars, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Mackenzie Foy is impressive, it's hard to beat the excitement of seeing the American Ballet Theater's first African-American ballerina*, Misty Copeland, be added to the cast as the lead in the big solo dance piece.

Though it isn't clear if Copeland will have any other role through the course of the movie it's still a history-making move on the part of Disney to cast her, and we know there will be at least one legitimate dance piece in the film, which is quite a departure from the live action films Disney has done to date. (This will also be Copeland's big screen debut.)
Misty Copeland - Principal American Ballet Theater
It means Disney will be, at the very least, giving a nod toward the classic and much-loved two act ballet, traditionally watched over the Winter/Christmas season.

It also would seem, especially due to Copeland's ballet solo, that we'll be hearing Tchaikovsky's classic music, which is wonderful. It's not Disney's first time using Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker score, with the original Fantasia exploring the magic wonder of the natural world and the changing seasons in perfectly complimentary animation. We admit we have hopes that Disney will perhaps pay a little homage to the beloved animation sequences from Walt's art experiment, and with the art and effects direction of films like Maleficent, Alice and Cinderella paving the way, the possibility of that happening in a magically-real sense are very possible.

We also know, however, that the writer, Ashleigh Powell, worked on the script for two years before Disney quietly bought it in a "competitive situation", last year, so it's unlikely the bones of the script have a Disney connection, but the potential for including the concept of seasons, (Four Realms folks!) and an homage to the original Fantasia being explored via production design and other art departments working on the film, is a definite possibility.

Here's the cast so far:

With Morgan Freeman in Drosselmeyer's role we envision a few different directions, not the least of which might be related to Copeland and her role. Drosselmeyer is an elusive figure, sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel, always mysterious, and with much more complicated motives, in attending the Christmas party and giving Clara the enchanted nutcracker, than most explorations usually tap.

We do hope it's something juicy for the legend to sink his teeth into.

So far the only official description of the plot is...
 A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.
 ...which could go many different ways. (Gingerbread soldiers against hungry mice would seem to be at a large disadvantage, don't you think?) Otherwise it sounds kind of bland.

The Disney film is set to use Minley Manor, in Hampshire, England, as one of its locations (we're guessing Clara's house), so we're definitely in for a large scale, lavish production.
Minley Manor
Whatever happens with the film, it's pretty much guaranteed to be better than the 2009 effort of The Nutcracker in 3D (which included Nazi planes... and, er, songs - yikes! We never quite reach 'The End' on that one.)

We're looking forward to seeing which way Disney's version goes.

We also know it will be based on ETA Hoffman's story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which is actually quite a bit longer, and darker, than the ballet. The ballet wasn't based on Hoffman's story, exactly, but instead a lighter version adapted by Alexandre Dumas. His story is much closer to that of the beloved ballet, which,  although contains Hoffman's creations, has quite a different emphasis. Dumas, however is not credited with the original story in the IMDB production database, which is usually very accurate about attribution. Instead Hoffman is given full credit, and we are taking that as a good sign.

Why, you may ask?

Well here's some background on Hoffman, who was a genuine German Romantic, and the themes and ideas that stirred him to write, compose and paint. You'll see how it's directly related to the type of story our society could use in our present social (and political) climate. From NPR (emphasis in bold is ours):
Hoffmann was actually named Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, but he changed the Wilhelm to Amadeus out of admiration for Mozart. And he didn't just write about music, he also composed it. He drew, he painted and — again, here's the connection to this time of year — Hoffmann wrote stories, spooky tales that trespassed the border between fantasy and reality. They were such famous stories that other composers read them and set them to to music throughout the 19th century — for example, Jacques Offenbach's opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. 
One of the episodes in The Tales of Hoffmann is based on a story called "The Sandman," in which evil inventors create a robotic girl. It was also — loosely — the basis for Leo Delibes' comic ballet Coppelia, about the misadventures of a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll. 
Inanimate things come to life in many of Hoffmann's stories. He was a champion of the imagination run wild. 
... Jack Zipes says Hoffmann was rebelling against the dominant movement of the time, the Enlightenment, and its emphasis on rational philosophy. "He believed strongly, as most of the German Romantics at that time, that the imagination was being attacked by the rise of rationalism ... throughout Europe," Zipes tells Siegel. "The only way that an artist could survive would be to totally become dedicated to another way of looking at the world, and to reclaiming nature, reclaiming innocence, reclaiming an authentic way of living."
People are already speculating parallels between the Alice live action movies and Nutcracker, with the plot of a young girl, after battling a Mouse (or sometimes Rat) King with her nutcracker doll that's come to life, being transported to the fantastical Land of Sweets, where, frankly, anything can happen. (We might get a clue early on as to the tone, if the Mouse King happens to have seven heads, as he was originally written.)

The addition of "Four Realms" to the title suggests an adventure or traveling story, which, to us sounds more interesting than being stuck in the Palace of Sweets watching a parade of dancing candy and live dolls. It also suggests season and maturation - a theme Disney didn't seem to be able to manage in trying to get Snow Queen off the ground, but perhaps they've found the right avenue here. We admit we always found the second act of the ballet story rather saccharine, with the sense that it didn't fit the journey Clara was 'encouraged' into by Drosselmeyer, and we are wondering if there isn't a movement back toward Hoffman's original ideas and intentions in the story, which are less sweet and light and, importantly, less easy to dismiss, and they're certainly possible to reflect in metaphors of seasons and growing up.

Again from Jack Zipes via NPR:
"What is interesting are the names, sometimes, that Hoffmann uses sometimes in 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,'" says German professor Jack Zipes. "The family in his story, in contrast to the ballet, is called Stahlbaum, which means 'steel tree.'" Marie, (Ed note: whom Dumas changed to Clara) Hoffmann's protagonist, "is imprisoned within the regulations of the family, the family follows rituals in a prescribed way, and she feels somewhat constrained by this." 
Then, Marie's strange and provocative godfather, Drosselmeier, appears.
"It's very difficult to translate the word 'Drosselmeier,' but it's somebody who stirs things up," Zipes says. "And Drosselmeier certainly shakes things up. He brings these amazing toys that he's made, and ignites the imagination of the young people in the celebration of Christmas.
If these ideas are explored in the film, as would resonate with the current cultural conversation, the potential for an excellent film here is huge.

Dare we hope?

We'll keep you posted as more news from this interesting looking film becomes available.

Fairy Tale Bonus of the Day:
It was recently announced that Misty Copeland will be returning to Southern California to dance The Nutcracker ballet in Orange County.
American Ballet Theater - Snowflakes from The Nutcracker
The American Ballet Theater will be bringing their production of The Nutcracker to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts for a run of shows. Of them, the company has announced Misty Copeland will be the principal dancer on December 9 and 16 and the evening show on December 17. The lead will rotate through other members of the company for each show, so on other nights you might catch Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston, Gillian Murphy or Stella Abrera performing the famous role.The American Ballet Theater production of The Nutcracker runs from December 9 to 18 at Segerstrom Hall. Performances are at 7pm with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $29 to $279.  

*Principal is the highest rank in a ballet company. 


  1. I don't see how Hoffman's story is *that* much darker than the ballet, unless they are referring to the underlying militarism (which is only dark from a modern perspective). What I like about Hoffman is the interweaving of the uncanny with the comical. The "love" story between Nathanael and the robotic Olimpia is equal parts spooky and whimsical tragic and funny amd for me makes the appeal of The Sandmann as well as his other stories. It's worth mentioning, that, even though he was a romantic himself, he didn't pass any chances to make fun of certain aspects of Romanticism. His fantastic stories are dipped into the same kind of irony, airy tale enthusiasts might have encountered in Perrault's tales.

    The Nutcracker is probably his most conventional work (likely due to it being a children's book which were still expected to convey morals during that time). What's probaably most frustrating for a modern reader are the expectations pushed onto boys and girls based on their gender (this is also where the militarism comes in), especially considering that Hoffmann, while certainly no dfeminist in the modern sense of the word, did subvert gender stereotypes and critizize the expectations put on women in some of his other works. If you can see past that, it's a fun romp through Candyland, without sugar plum fairyies, but with an absolutely insane backstory, that should easily get you in the holiday spirit. But then again, maybe just read The Sandmann. If you don't plan on sleeping tonight that is.

    1. I've just recently started looking into some of Hoffmann's stuff, including recently reading 'The Sandmann'. I liked some aspects of it more than others (was that downer ending really necessary??), but I did enjoy the skewering of the idea of the perfectly-accomplished, always-agreeable woman, not unlike 'A Toy Princess' by Mary DeMorgan. It's also been interesting to start learning about the many creative takes on Hoffmann's material in the other arts. Although I'm not usually one for opera, I'm getting more and more curious about that 'Tales of Hoffmann' opera. I recently learned that the opera's 'Doll Aria' has pauses written into the song, because Olympia must be periodically wound up by an inventor before she can continue singing; what a creative way to use music and acting to serve the story.

    2. I've read The Sandman before and I've also seen a recording of the comic ballet Coppelia which is loosely inspired by it. The two are night and day. However, when I decided to make a storytelling performance out of Coppelia I decided to look to some elements of The Sandman, specifically their characterization of old Coppelius and the idea that he worked with automata rather than just oversized dolls. I don't know, I was just more tickled by the idea of a ballet featuring a mad scientist and robots than one featuring a crazy toymaker and wind-up dolls.

  2. So it was Dumas who gave the little girl the name Clara! In Hoffmann's short story, it was Marie's doll that was named Miss Clara. I wrote a bit about Hoffmann's story a while back: I missed a good deal of the metaphors that you quoted Zipes as referencing, though. Sometimes I can be a bit dense to that stuff.

  3. Casting ballerina diva darling Misty Copeland is really one of the best ideas for our area young children are mainly African American. Many very talented but that talent reaches no farther because of the poor education our rural children are receiving. The city school learning levels in all subjects is one of the lowest in our state.
    Hope this film MS Copeland stars in becomes a hit, and production of the film brings the DVD out the young children would love this idea of the Nutcracker. Disney. Fairy Tale and folk tales are equal to any realistic fiction since I always feel the basis of the history of each genre style of fantasy is based on a historic social scene from thousands of years of humanity struggling with so many trials for young girls and young boys in social setting. Thanks good write up. atk