With the success of live-action, female-fronted fantasies like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Alice and Wonderland, Disney decided to roll the dice with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. This ambitious adaptation is inspired by both E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker Ballet, but folds in more intrigue, adventure, and a heavy dose of female empowerment to better entice modern audiences. The result is a film that’s very pretty, pretty family-friendly, but also startlingly dull.
The script by Ashleigh Powell re-imagines Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) as a child-genius who takes after her late mother, an expert engineer who was a protege to master toymaker Drosselmeyer (an eye-patched Morgan Freeman). At his beguiling holiday party, a grieving Clara seeks out the missing key that would unlock her mother’s final gift to her. Instead, she finds a portal to another world, where her mother was queen and she is honored as Princess Clara! She is swiftly swept up in the pageantry of this land of flowers, snowflakes, and candy. But her new pal the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) warns Clara all is not well in the four realms. Rowdy ringmaster Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) is brewing for a war, using her mice minions as her army. With the help of a handsome nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight), Clara must save her mother’s kingdom before it’s too late!
Powell’s approach adds more action sequences and encourages the production design to run wild, crafting colorful characters, surreal spectacle, and fantastical fight scenes. Her tweak that turned Clara into a young engineer is a bit heavy-handed but offers some great onscreen representation for girls interestest in STEM, and more importantly, makes Clara a more pro-active heroine than some old-school Disney princesses. She is no fleeing damsel in distress but instead a bold girl who leaps into action and leads her own troops into battle! Unfortunately, the script’s setups are spoiled in execution. And it’s difficult to know who to blame as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has Lasse Hallström for the initial production, but Joe Johnston was called in for 32 days of reshoots. To their credits, the finished film isn’t disjointed. But it isn’t fun or thrilling either.
Hallström’s signature sentimentality goes stiff among a cast that’s choked in one-note roles. Freeman shows up for a glorified cameo. Celebrated comedic performers Richard E. Grant and Eugenio Derbez are buried in icicles and bouquets as the regents of the Realm of Snowflakes and Realm of Flowers respectively. And they are given far less screen time than a simpering Jack Whitehall and a sneering Omid Djalili as a pair of snooty guards. It’s nearly criminal how little screentime Mirren receives. But she does her best with it, slinging a whip and sharp glances with equal sharpness. But poor Matthew Macfadyen, who’s won hearts in Pride and Prejudice and belly laughs in Anna Karenina, is utterly wasted as Clara’s father, whose only job is to look sad and perplexed.
Much of the film’s emotional weight rests on Foy’s slim shoulders. And while the American actress does a solid job with an English accent and looking as resolute as a Star Wars heroine, she doesn’t give us much else. Clara is often huffing, at her father for daring to ask her to dance, at the Mouse Prince for snatching away her coveted key, at siblings and toy soldiers and anyone else who doesn’t do exactly as she’d like. When she’s not huffing, she’s determined, which is fine but not exactly interesting. And we know she’s clever, because everyone says so, whether she’s fixing broken gadgets or taking absolutely everything anyone tells her at face value. Foy is lovely. But there’s no verve to her performance. As she’s surrounded by marvelous actors who are given paltry screentime and paper-thin characters, the whole thing falls flat as a stage scrim.
Still, there are some standout moments. Typical to Hallström, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is visually delightful, flush with vivid colors. Divinely detailed costumes from Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road) might be worth the price of admission alone. Plus there are creepy character designs that—while they may be a bit much for younger or more sensitive children—gave a thrilling jolt for their sheer strangeness. For instance, Hoffman’s seven-headed Mouse King is imagined as a sort of Voltron hive-mind, where hordes of mice construct themselves into a shape-shifting behemoth ready for battle (and nightmares!) And then there’s Mother Ginger’s insane clown posse, rolly-polly creatures with shimmery sinister grins and round bellies that split down the middle allowing them to hide inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. But my favorite bizarre bit is Kiera Knightley’s.
This Sugar Plum Fairy is pretty in pink, giddily girly, and harbors a deep love of diva moments. With chipper coos, Knightley is swiftly enchanting. But when things turn dark, she never quite pulls off the bawdy bravado demanded. Still, she earned the only laughs at the screening I attended. The most memorable of which is when she eats her own hair. Let me explain: Her hair is a coiffure of cotton candy. And she nonchalantly snacks on it while watching Misty Copeland perform ballet.
Oh. Yes. There is ballet. But in bits so brief it’s likely to disappoint Nutcracker Ballet die-hards. Still, Copeland is striking onscreen. Her long legs powerful and elegant. Her smile radiant. Her dancing divine. It’s a shame that the editing jumps about like a sugar-high toddler, refusing to let us relish in the refined art in a luxurious long take. Instead, the cut jumbles together curious angles and cutaways to a chattering audience, treating the ballet like an afterthought or Easter Egg.
Perhaps those who already hold a deep affection for the film’s source material won’t feel so cheated by this adaptation. Maybe those who swooned over the style of Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland will be similarly swept up in this pretty adventure and its pretty heroine. But for me, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms was a grand idea bungled in an emotionally anemic execution. There’s such grandeur here! Such risks! But little personality. And without that, it’s as hollow as a tin soldier and as wooden as a nutcracker.