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Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, based on an 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann story, is as synonymous with the holidays as Santa Claus and candy canes. Now Disney has given it new life with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a big-screen adaptation that centers on Clara’s adventures in an ornate palace and the fanciful lands that surround it. Producer Mark Gordon tells EW that bringing the experience of the ballet to a wider audience was very much a part of why he and Disney wanted to tell the story on movie screens. “It’s such a beloved holiday classic as far as the ballet is concerned,” he says, “and yet how many people have an opportunity to see the ballet?”
Taking inspiration from the worlds and music of the original story and the ballet, Four Realms blows things up to an eye-popping scale. “We did our own version of some of the different visuals that one has seen over the years in some of the classic ballet versions,” says Gordon, while production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas adds, “It was vitally important to try my hardest to fulfill everybody’s vision of what this world would be like if they really saw it outside of a ballet stage setting.”
Dyas says he didn’t want to design settings that were “aesthetically pleasing without any logical backbone,” so he built the world from the ground up and adhered to a strict historical cutoff at the year 1879. “I tried desperately to make a logic to this entire universe, so the 5-year-old me would believe this world,” he says. “I remember as a kid going to see a lot of films and not quite buying into some of these worlds because they weren’t built from the ground up as real societies.”
Constructing a world that would feel tactile and tangible to the audience meant building the majority of the sets and only filling in here and there with CGI. “This is not a green-screen movie,” Gordon says. “We actually built these sets. We wanted the audience to feel the reality and almost have a tactile experience, even though they’re not literally touching it. You can feel the difference between virtual sets and real sets.”
Disney gave EW an exclusive look at the magical four realms and the palace at the heart of it all. Take a look below for more on each of the enchanting sets.
At the center of the movie is the palace, where the regents of all the realms convene. The castle set, which star Mackenzie Foy (Clara) calls “insane,” boasts a working portcullis and floor-to-ceiling tapestries. Both Gordon and Dyas cite a heavy Russian influence in the design. “[We] veered away from the more traditional fairy castles and chateaus we’ve seen in recent years,” says Dyas. “There’s a strong Russian historical context to The Nutcracker, so it was a very natural aesthetic to start studying architecturally. The child in me looked at some of those gorgeous Russian buildings with all their bright colors and onion-topped towers, and I realized very quickly what I was looking at were heaps of candy and flowers.”
The key to making the palace feel fantastical was to take the Russian historical architecture and add elements like highly saturated colors. “You’re not really sure, looking at some of these buildings, whether they are real palaces or toys in the imagination of a child,” Dyas says.
In the middle of the palace is the throne room, with four corners looking north, south, east, and west, to each of the different realms. As part of ensuring the logic of the world, Dyas assigned specific jobs and responsibilities to each realm.
LAND OF FLOWERS
In this agricultural home to farmers and beekeepers, Dyas turned to Dutch windmills and villages in the south of England to design his floral masterpieces. “There are windmills in the Land of Flowers, and they’re farmers, so there’s the production of flour and wheat, and all the primary functions of a society are done there. We took it seriously and adorned the sets with live flowers,” he notes. “It wasn’t about making the flowers look real; it was about getting the perfume in the air and allowing the performers to really feel the magic of what it must be like to be in a world of flowers.”
For Foy, the Land of Flowers presented a unique challenge to her allergies, but she was still blown away by the design. “There were real flowers on set. And they would have real fruits and vegetables,” she marvels. “It was crazy how much detail was in it. Between takes, I kept going and smelling them because they smelled so good.”
LAND OF SNOWFLAKES
For this realm of politicians, ice producers, and miners, Dyas took inspiration from a famous Swedish ice hotel and 16th-century German villages, transforming that architecture into layers of ice. “The most fun was coming up with their transportation system, which is primarily sleighs with deer,” Dyas recalls. Foy says that walking into elaborate sets like these felt just as magical for her as an actor as it was meant to feel for the character of Clara: “It was like you walked into a new world.”
LAND OF SWEETS
Inspired by the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy (played here by Keira Knightley), this land was built from real candy. “They had to put signs that said, ‘Don’t eat the candy,’” says Foy. “I’m like, ‘I want to eat it now that I know that it’s real!’” Dyas remembers the sets being irresistible temptations for younger members of the cast. “I won’t name names, but one of our younger cast, every time I turned up on set, his cheeks were filled like a hamster,” Dyas jokes. “A lot of [them] didn’t eat their lunch that day.”
Dyas had several inspirations for the brightly colored Land of Sweets, but he admits the first images to spring to mind were of the board game Candy Land. Luckily for Dyas and his strict historical accuracy, lots of contemporary candy has roots in the Victorian era. “Victorians at that time had immersed themselves in the most incredible candy invention you could ever have imagined,” he says. “Most of the candy and sweets that we know today stem from things developed at that time. Whether it be cotton candy or marzipan or refined nougat, chocolate cake, all these things.”
These various confections were employed with ingenuity to craft buildings with real chocolate tile roofs, walls of nougat, and stained-glass windows made of boiled sweets. They make surprisingly good building materials. “The walls of the building are made of nougat, and when you cut through nougat, you see all the nuts and cherries that are in there,” explains Dyas. “That looks wonderful on the sides of the building because it looks like this stonework.” Another key element of this realm was the heaps of steam coming from the buildings and the groups of background actors hard at work making candy to demonstrate that this is the “industrial revolution” portion of the world.
THE FOURTH REALM
Previously known as the Land of Amusements and ruled over by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the Fourth Realm is now a mysterious place, which the creative team will only describe as “creepy.” Gordon does hint that the majority of the story takes place in this realm. Foy adds, “It’s creepy trees and all that kind of stuff, and it was very big and it was beautiful. Those were very, very impressive sets.”
While Dyas won’t go into too much detail, he refers to the Fourth Realm as a “mysterious place” that denizens of the world have been afraid to visit for many years. Prior to becoming this strange place, Dyas says, it was the “fun fair and circus center of the world.”
Both Dyas and Foy note that it was home to some of their largest, most impressive sets, including one Dyas says was so “bizarre and wild” in architecture and silhouette that it attracted members of other productions shooting at London’s Pinewood Studios to ogle it.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms hits theaters Nov. 2.