Review Summary: Timeless tradition with a modern twist.
The soundtrack for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
embodies all of the mystique and enchantment that surrounds the holiday spirit. Outside, street lamps collect snow as horse-drawn carriages make their way through town. The front windows on each house glow like little embers, and on every door hangs a wreath. Inside are bright lights, crackling fireplaces, with dancing. If you tire of the merry-making and festivities, you might venture up a long and winding staircase towards a room you’ve never seen before. You stumble upon a secret passage; a doorway to another realm. Composer James Newton Howard invites us into this magical kingdom – one that is starkly familiar and tantalizingly mysterious all the same. It’s a score rooted in timeless Christmas tradition, but with dark and foreboding shadows lurking beneath the surface.
maintains a lot of its traditional appeal through the implementation of Tchaikovsky’s timeless Nutcracker
pieces, which are re-imagined and sprinkled throughout the score. ‘Coffee’, ‘Marie and Fritz Awake’, ‘Overture’, ‘Nutcracker and Marie Depart for the Pine Forest’, ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’, and ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ are all woven into the soundtrack at various points, infusing it with enough familiar tunes to keep the audience focused. The selection curiously lacks some of the most iconic and recognizable junctures from the original Nutcracker
suite, however, like ‘March’ and ‘Candy Cane.’ While one can’t help but wonder if the presence of such moments would have provided Four Realms
with an extra jolt of Christmas spirit, the soundtrack still does quite well. What it takes from Tchaikovsky feels updated in context, and what is delivered as brand new material is adventurous, classically composed, and thematically on-point.
Howard’s composition winds and turns, alternating between somber, soft-glowing string/piano pieces such as ‘Presents from Mother’, and spirited, whimsical full-bodied movements like ‘Clara Finds the Key.’ There’s a deft balance that makes the entire score digestible rather than cyclical or tiresome. An excerpt that aptly displays Howard’s skillful use of contrast occurs between ‘Mouserinks’ and ‘Just a Few Questions’, where the former tramples listeners with a frenetic orchestra and the latter settles into an uplifting, regal moment of clarity. Typically, the adrenalized, borderline panicked spikes in sound represent the movie’s adventure theme, whereas the slower moments act as ellipses…a chance for the listener to become adrift in thought; lost in whatever holiday memories they hold dear. In the case of a song like ‘Clara’s New World’, it contains a little of both – with an original Nutcracker
introduction that slowly bleeds into an intoxicating blend of hushed chimes and horns, all of which builds to a haunting choral midsection before climbing to a sweeping, poignant violin apex. Some of the strongest tracks on this effort – such as ‘Clara’s New World’ – are Howard originals, which is a point that shouldn’t be ignored when assessing the soundtrack’s authenticity.
There are of course plenty of reasons to still be cynical. The movie is produced by Disney, after all. The blatant theme-saturation could be construed as your typical marketing ploy. Literally no content pertains to the true meaning of Christmas, either. And as a cherry on top, it’s clearly too early to be pushing a holiday agenda, no matter what your local mall may be trying to sell you. Oh, and the shameless tacking-on of the Andrea Bocelli song at the end of the score screams, “download our single!” While all of these points are valid, when has the holiday spirit ever been about logic, or common sense？ It’s about indulging in your fantasies; believing in magic even though you know deep down that there’s no such thing. It’s about you, your memories, and the traditions that you hold close to your heart. In cases like this, a little bit of cheesiness and indulgence is permissible. That may be all The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
is, but if it helps you open a few doorways into your imagination, and to access just a fraction of that ever-elusive holiday spirit, then I’d wager that it’s worth a quick listen.