2.5 out of 5 stars.
When you think of “The Nutcracker,” chances are all the things related to the famous ballet come to mind: beautiful dances and costumes, Tchaikovsky’s music, and of course the main characters, a young girl named Clara and a nutcracker prince. However, only a handful of those elements are present in Disney’s take on the classic holiday story, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
Directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston (who took over from the former for reshoots), “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” opens on Christmas Eve in late-nineteenth century London, where we are introduced to the Stahlbaum family. There’s father (Matthew Macfayden), sister Louise (Ellie Bamber), brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), and the middle child, Clara (Mackenzie Foy). The film embellishes Clara’s character immediately by introducing her as being an incredibly clever inventor, like her mother, who passed away that year. Clara is at odds with her father regarding mourning her; father wants to go out and keep up appearances, while Clara wants to stay locked away in the attic. But he gets her to attend her godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) Christmas party, where Clara enlists his help in opening a decorative egg left to her by her mother. Clara’s search for the key leads her to another world that consists of four realms, and of which she is apparently the princess. But the realms are on the brink of war, and Clara must discover the confidence within her to save everyone.
Now you may read that synopsis and think, “Well what does any of that have to do with a nutcracker?” And you would be right. This movie isn’t nearly as horrendous as it appears, but one of its most heinous crimes is removing the Nutcracker from the center of the plot. He is not Clara’s toy; he is Fritz’s, who we only catch a passing, meaningless glance of at the Christmas party at the beginning of the film. And instead of a prince, he is a soldier called Captain Phillip Hoffman (played by Jayden Fowora-Knight), who joins Clara on her quest to save the four realms. Phillips isn’t a bad character by any means, but it’s hard to see this as an adaptation of “The Nutcracker” without, well, the nutcracker.
The film has some other, um, imaginative interpretations of well-known characters from the story as well. The Mouse King is actually a giant mouse made up of thousands of regular mice—doesn’t get much creepier than that. Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) is the ruler of the Land of Amusements, and she doesn’t have a lot of children, but she does have a lot of creepy clown henchmen (okay, maybe it does get weirder than the mice). The cast also includes Eugenio Derbez as the ruler of the Land of Flowers and Richard E. Grant as the leader of the Land of Snowflakes. And then there’s the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ruler of the Land of Sweets. She is played by Keira Knightley in one of the campiest performances you will see in a recent movie. Sporting a ridiculous high-pitched voice and over-acting with every gesture and line of dialogue, she takes the Sugar Plum Fairy on such an insane character arc that is so horrible it’s actually kind of great.
On the flip side, Foy is utterly charming as Clara, her performance being one of the bright spots of the movie. It’s just a shame that, despite trying to place Clara in the center of the story in a heroic role, the story doesn’t serve her better. It begins well enough, setting up the family drama and Clara’s desire to solve this mystery left behind by her late mother. But it’s actually once we reach the four realms, which should be the most exciting part of the film, that the story begins to derail. It becomes a predictable journey of self-discovery, with the whole thing taking on a look and feel that is remarkably similar to Disney’s live-action “Alice in Wonderland,” and it lacks the heart to move viewers, although Foy’s performance remedies some of that. The script doesn’t have any particularly memorable moments, or bits of humor. The film also doesn’t do enough to invest viewers in this magical land. In fact, we barely see any of the four realms at all, so the sense of wonder and enchantment that we should be feeling just isn’t there.
There are a few things that this movie gets really right, however. It may be a CGI fest, but the visual effects are absolutely enchanting. Yes, London in this movie may be as fake as the four realms, but the film opens with a stunning tracking shot sweeping through the streets of the city at Christmastime. And what little we do get to see of the four realms is colorful and gorgeous, with the 3D effects serving the effects well. The lighting in this movie, particularly in the first third, is also surprisingly gorgeous, as are the wonderfully detailed costumes. And while the story does deviate from the ballet, there is some dancing in this movie, and to Tchaikovsky’s score at that (with an additional new score by James Newton Howard). Once Clara reaches the four realms, she is treated to a gorgeous ballet performed by Misty Copeland, where performance, music, effects, lighting, and cinematography all come together to form a scene unlike any you will see in a recent mainstream Hollywood movie. It’s a shame that this movie otherwise takes such a clichéd approach to telling its story; and that the same amount of effort placed in the visuals wasn’t put into the story.
Runtime: 99 minutes. Rated PG.