Arriving just in time to kick off the Christmas season, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is your classic holiday revamp “but with a twist.” The new Disney blockbuster is a strange blend of E. T. A. Hoffmann‘s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet The Nutcracker that will entertain young audiences, but leave adults wondering if they should have just re-watched Elf.
In the film’s opening scene, we are introduced to Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), a clever 14-year-old girl who—along with her desolate family—is trying to make sense of the world in the wake of her mother’s death. It’s Christmas Eve in Victorian London, and Clara is given a mysterious mechanical egg as a gift from her late mother along with a note stating “Everything you need is inside.” The only problem: The egg is locked, and she doesn’t have the key. After some guidance in the form of an elaborate treasure hunt from her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman)—who, for some reason, is wearing an eyepatch—Clara topples through a magic passageway into what we learn is the Four Realms, a mystical world of which her late mother was the queen.
The realms are appropriately divided into four kingdoms: the Realm of Flowers, the Realm of Snowflakes, the Realm of Sweets, and the Fourth Realm, which was known as the Realm of Amusements until Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) was banished there along with her security crew, a team of creepy clown-doll hybrids. Before Clara can return home to her family, she must find the key to the locked egg and unite the divided kingdoms, as was her mother’s dying wish before the passed.
Despite lackluster acting from the supporting cast, Mackenzie Foy (a survivor from the Twilight series) carries the film on her shoulders with relative ease. She is the perfect blend of fierce and feminine, the sort of hero young audience members can look up to. Jayden Fowora Knight is likeable enough in his role as the titular nutcracker, but his character is never given any substance beyond being the token sidekick. Helen Mirren shows similar potential in her portrayal of Mother Ginger, but is pushed to the sidelines until the very end of the film, and even then doesn’t deliver.
Keira Knightley makes a laudable attempt in her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but her portrayal of the classic character is more reminiscent of Effie from The Hunger Games than the elegant figure we remember from our childhood. But in all fairness, Knightley’s character provides an edge the bland film desperately needs: Her over-the-top acting and squeaky voice are just enough to keep older audiences from nodding off in the middle of the theater.
Frankly, the film’s greatest shortcoming is that it bites off much more than it can chew in terms of scope. While the premise is interesting, the revamped plot is convoluted and draws too heavily on elements outside the scope of the classic tales. The film has two directors, Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, but neither of them worked on the film at the same time. Hallstrom was the original director while Johnston was called in later to lead reshoots and oversee visual effects, during which Hallstrom wasn’t present due to scheduling conflicts. The result is a film that feels misguided and inconsistent in the tone it sets. This effect, combined with the muddy plot from first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell, ensures that while movie is refreshingly contemporary, it’s so derivative that it doesn’t say anything of substance.
There are a few shining moments amid the rubble that is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, including American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland’s cameo. Her performance, which serves as background to the history of the Four Realms, is simply wonderful and leaves the audience in awe, but her talents are severely underutilized (see: non-existent) throughout the rest of the film considering the ballet from which the movie draws its inspiration. Where the film really thrives is in its special effects and production design. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Christmas come to life, with beautiful snowy landscapes and glittering ballroom scenes. The film’s rendering of St. Basil’s Cathedral is breathtaking, and arguably one of its finer moments. While it at times gets lost in its CGI components, the film is brilliantly colorful and pleasing to the eye, and the costumes are amazing.
Teeming with good intentions but ultimately falling flat, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a quick fix to get oneself into the Christmas spirit, then immediately forget about once The Grinch comes out next week.
Featured Image by Walt Disney Pictures