Tchaikovsky's Christmas ballet is honored in this Disney interpretation, in theaters now.
It begins with an egg.
The elegantly crafted, Faberge-style creation is a Christmas present from Clara’s mother — only she’s not around to give it to Clara herself. She died not too long before, and her whole family is in mourning, especially Clara’s grief-stricken father. He’s lost without her, really. Maybe they all are — Clara’s older sister Louise, younger brother Fritz, and Clara herself.
The egg is beautiful, but Clara can see that it is merely a wrapping for something even more wonderful — maybe even something that will answer all her questions and comfort her in her grief. In fact, her mother says as much in a handwritten note: “Everything you need is inside,” it says.
But frustratingly, her mom didn’t give her the key.
The new film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a lavish visual spectacle that, according to screenwriter Ashleigh Powell, tries to honor its much-beloved source material (mainly Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet) while sprinting ahead into a bigger world and a much bigger story. And it all revolves around Clara’s quest for that key — a key that she finally pursues into a magical land.
While some critics say that Disney’s visual extravaganza feels lightweight and, at times, nonsensical, there’s some pretty interesting stuff at play here. Like the egg, Clara herself is a bit of a puzzle — at least to herself. Clara is not like her older sister, who more comfortably fits into what that Victorian-era’s women should be. Clara is an engineer at heart — a tinkerer like her mom and like her godfather, the mysterious toymaker Drosselmeyer. And that leaves her feeling a little lost, especially without her mother.
“She’s looking for her place in the world,” Powell told me. And she goes to another world to find it.
I’ve been watching a lot of movies — most much less family friendly than The Nutcracker — where the main characters feel that they’re missing something — missing a key to who they really are or could be. I’ve speculated elsewhere that maybe most of us feel this sense of incompleteness at times. It’s part of living in a fallen world and apart from our Creator. The mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who lived in the 17th century said that we all have a God-shaped hole in our center. Inevitably, anything we use to fill that hole — be it drugs or sex or work, or even better things like friends and family — will always fall short.
Clara, too, finds her quest for answers frustrated. Her search for meaning behind her mother’s death falls short. At one point she sighs, “I’m just as lost as when I came here.”
But there’s something inspiring in the optimism we find in this version of The Nutcracker — the insistence of Clara’s mother that “everything you need is inside.” There’s something even a little spiritual there.
Granted, The Nutcracker doesn’t intend for it to be. It aims a little lower — to embrace who we are, whether that’s a little out of step with the world around us or not. It’s a pretty common Disney message.
And yet, that oft-repeated message is biblical, too. Psalm 139:14 reminds us that we are wonderfully, uniquely made. And 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that we’ve been given gifts by God, and that we’re to use those gifts to glorify God and to help the folks around us. The same being that created the universe created us — and that makes us pretty incredible works, really, even if we sometimes feel a little out of sync with the broken world around us.
It’s interesting, too, how in some translations of Ephesians 2:10, we’re called products of God’s “workmanship.” It makes me imagine God as being a little like Drosselmeyer, crafting his wonderful, whimsical creations for the delight and amazement of all. We are eggs, holding tremendous and inexplicable gifts. We just sometimes need God’s help to unlock them.
If I were parenting a young child, walking out of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I’d talk to him or her about the amazing visuals, the bravery of Clara, the message that things are not always what they seem. But I think I’d also delve into Clara’s quest for her key, and the lesson she learns en route. And I’d say that Clara’s mother was right: Everything that we need to deal with this fallen world is inside us … if God is in there, too.