Flight Themes in the Four Realms

Robert Chapin

A Balloon Basket in the Land of Sweets

For a pop culture moment, let’s consider the mysterious flight elements of Disney’s movie from last winter, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

I say “mysterious” because there are some hidden clues as to why several flight-related themes appear, mostly very subtle, throughout the movie.  For the most part, there is no clear metaphor, no overt allusion, and very little background information that points to this in the story.  As an aviator, these things simply catch my attention.


Birds are portrayed in almost every scene.  Look for this when you watch the movie.  Drosselmeyer’s owl appears every so often as a sort of creepy non-speaking narrator or family member that helps to connect some of the scenes together, but never contributes to the story.  This is one clear flight theme with no greater purpose.  And as I said, the other elements are subtle.  There are birds on the walls, birds in the furniture, birds as lawn ornaments, and less pervasively in the costumes.  But look at the hats.  They all have swans.

Another live bird, a raven, is employed to call out a sense of foreboding as Clara leads an army into the Land of Amusements.

One of the rare acknowledgements of the bird “motif” comes from an interview of the production designer, Guy Dyas.  In his description of Clara’s peacock-and-angel-wings princess throne, he mentions that, “Peacocks, traditionally, are a sign of good luck and goodwill.”  The throne itself is “one of those winks or nudges to the audience to look just a little bit closer behind the meaning behind the visuals that they’re looking at.”

Images From Perspective Magazine


The Sugar Plum Fairy, who we might expect to provide an obvious flight theme, is without wings in all but a few brief scenes.  Why wouldn’t she at least have some decorative wings on her costume?

Santa’s sleigh makes an appearance in the background of the ballroom scenes.  Reindeer powered and shaped like … well it looks like swans being pulled by reindeer.  It has a powerful presence if you look for it, but could be missed because the ballroom scenes are brief.  This is the only flight theme that connects strongly with the story in the movie and doesn’t seem random or unexpected.

Angels and butterflies make brief appearances to adorn the extremely detailed movie sets and costumes.

Honeybees can be seen in the background of the ballet portraying the Land of Sweets.  This adds to the sugary images and numerous flight themes, but doesn’t connect well with the other candy-covered depictions of that Realm or its Regent.

Fireflies illuminating a conifer in the Christmas Tree Forest strangely contrast the fact that these insects always hibernate as wingless larvae in wintertime, suggesting a magical influence here.


My favorite theme is the occasional use of hot air balloons.  Why does a ballet need hot air balloons?

In a brief and bizarrely edited montage stuck in the middle of the ballet scene, Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy and their pilot show up in a steampunk-turned-candy balloon basket surrounded by spectators.  Because why not?  One shot shows the basket lifting off, and another shot shows the basket flying over a very colorful computer-graphical Land of Sweets.  And that’s it.  There were no other shots of this balloon in the movie, nor did they ever reveal its air envelope.

But the blast valve is controlled by a gingerbread cookie.  And the basket comes with an anchor.  So this unique contraption deserves a closer look.

Balloon Basket Lifting Off

The balloon basket appears to be made from wicker, giving an authentic feel as well as stability for the actors. However, the rim of the basket has two handle-like protrusions, suggesting a totally round shape isn’t fancy enough for the Land of Sweets.  The six uprights appear to be normal ropes supported by a round frame at the top, and decorated by a pink strap at each end. One of the straps has separated or may be broken.

Any reasonably airworthy design would require balloon cables extending up above the uprights, perhaps attaching to that round frame. But all we see are 3 of maybe 6 radial supports. Those could be adequate to support the weight of the cookies and the cinnamon buns, but clearly not enough to lift the basket.  At the center of this upper frame is some kind of device that looks like a it’s a cross between a window valence and a sun dial.  I’d love to know what that thing was supposed to be.

A candy colored rope ladder hangs next to one of the uprights.  It’s doubled up, either for aesthetic density, or because someone just threw it over the top of the frame and it is not attached to anything.

Four crown lines are attached to the basket, likely decorative.  In a possible discontinuity, the attachment point for one of the crown lines seems to change between shots.

A Small Candle Heated Balloon

More Balloons

If you were paying attention, you might recall that Clara’s very first scene in the movie involves a candle-heated balloon that triggers a Rube Goldberg style mousetrap.  That balloon is suspended from a length of twine with a counterweight to keep it off of the floor.  I don’t know if this was an attempt at foreshadowing, or just another element of the unexplained flight themes, but I doubt the average moviegoer made any conscious connections there.  Was this scene supposed to have some deeper meaning?

The Land of Amusements has another balloon element, and it’s subtle.  One of the amusement rides here is a Ferris wheel that has hot air balloons instead of passenger cars.  It can be seen in the background of one or two shots, and that is all.  But it is recreated on the set of the ballet scene where it is smaller, illuminated, and rotating.  The concept art for the movie shows the balloon-equipped Ferris wheel as a prominent feature.  Depending on which image you find, the location of that Ferris wheel changes slightly.  There is also a map of the Four Realms that does not show the Ferris wheel at all, but does feature a single hot air balloon, mistakenly labeled “Airship”, flying over the Land of the Sweets.

When the battle is over and peace is restored near the end of the movie, the Saint Basil’s Cathedral-inspired castle palace at the center of the Four Realms shows up with more than a few hot air balloons flying around it.  Is this a clue about some obscure symbolism?  Is the balloon a powerful idea to be used as an instrument of peace or freedom, but not in war?

As Guy Dyas said, “The elements that you’re looking at have all been pretty carefully considered so that there is a lot of symbolism within all of these sets.”

Behind The Computer Generated Hot Air Balloons

Ferris Wheel in the Land of Amusements

The Ferris Wheel at the Ballet

A Version of the concept art showing the Ferris wheel is close to the bridge.

A Map Showing the “Airship”

4 Jul 2019


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