This Is a Movie Review: I Have No Idea How to Make Sense of ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,’ But At Least It’s Vaguely Enjoyable

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CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland

Directors: Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG for Mildly Scary Rodents

Release Date: November 2, 2018

In The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Mr. Stahlbaum’s (Matthew Macfayden) wife has recently passed away, so now he wants to make sure that he and his children are able to keep it together. What does he believe is the best way to do so? Why, dancing, of course! They head off to a Christmas ball, where he insists to his headstrong daughter Clara (Mackenzie Foy) that she must save one dance for him. When they arrive, she has no interest in dancing, but by the end, the entire Stahlbaum family is dancing together. How does she end up changing her mind? I guess it must have something to do with her impromptu journey through a magical, Narnia-like realm, but I’m not sure show. This movie resembles a hero’s journey in which lessons are learned, but it is not particularly clear what those lessons are, beyond the simple “be brave” and “appearances can be deceiving.” But regardless, Mr. Stahlbaum’s wish for dancing is fulfilled, so … mission accomplished?

Beyond Clara’s internal fortitude, the main potential attraction in the Four Realms is Keira Knightley’s weirdly affected performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. As one of the leaders of the realms, she sounds like a body snatcher doing an impression of a ditzy supermodel. She speaks in baby-talk neologisms that make her sound like a character from Rugrats. The way she says “Oh, poo” is transcendent.

Basically, what it boils down to is this: I have no idea how closely this film resembles the original 1816 short story, and I do not care to look it up. (I’m guessing the plot doesn’t matter all that much in the ballet.) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms lacks a sense of of clear purpose and meaning and comes with a psychedelic edge that often goes along with misbegotten fantasy family movies. I would not expect such a surreal flavor from either of its co-directors (Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston), but accidental surrealism is often the best surrealism.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Recommended If You Like: I have absolutely no clue.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Mice

This Is a Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

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A DOG'S PURPOSE

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2017.

Starring: Josh Gad, K.J. Apa, Britt Robertson, John Ortiz, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton

Director: Lasse Hallström

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG for a Few Moments That Make a Dog Whimper

Release Date: January 27, 2017

A Dog’s Purpose asks, “What is a dog’s purpose?” Before answering this question, it is important to note that A Dog’s Purpose presupposes that reincarnation (or at least canine reincarnation) is a fact of existence. If you have been a dog parent multiple times and ever believed that one of your more recent pups was somehow the same as one of your older ones, then this film has your back. This is the third in director Lasse Hallström’s dog trilogy (following 1985’s My Life as a Dog and 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale), so I feel confident in determining that he imbued that belief into every single frame.

The film seeks its meaning by tracking the lives of the dog (voiced by Josh Gad in each iteration) over approximately 50 years. The lifetimes that are traversed include an all-American football-slinging, farming sixties family; a seventies detective buddy story; a Jheri curled-style romance in the eighties and nineties; and a reunion narrative in the 2000’s, along with a few danger-filled detours along the way. The canine perspective remains endearing, with much humor mined from the dog growing into its new bodies, often switching genders (the breeds range from Red Retriever to German Shepherd, down to Corgi, concluding as a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd mix).

But the quality of the film is only as strong as the quality of each of the human stories. The most prominent is also the most cliché-ridden. Ethan (K.J. Apa) is a wholesome high school quarterback with everything going his way until an accident derails his guarantee of an athletic scholarship. Rectify’s Luke Kirby does what he can in the mandatory drunk dad role, and Britt Robertson is a minor delight as Ethan’s best gal, but this whole segment is a slog due to painfully unimaginative writing.

Much more fun, and offbeat, are the two middle segments. John Ortiz is a natural as a ’70s detective in the K-9 unit. His pursuit of a divorced dad who has kidnapped his daughter is a weirdly engrossing mix of family friendly and urban grit. That is followed by a portion that is a bit like The Cosby Show, except with a lot more perms and a-ha.

A Dog’s Purpose is never so cloying that it ought to be resented. Yet its storytelling is all too often so surface-level that it does not matter how lovable dogs are. But it concludes nicely when it returns back to the farm, redeeming a story that had little going for it in the first place. Let’s put it this way: Dennis Quaid has a face and physique that were made for carrying bales of hay, and Peggy Lipton makes the case that all cinematic love stories should henceforth star 70-year-olds.

A Dog’s Purpose is Recommended If You Like: Dogs More Than You Like Good Storytelling, Pretending That Your Dog’s Internal Voice is That of Olaf from Frozen

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Games of Fetch