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Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

November 2, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a new fantasy adventure from the studio that arrives in time for the holiday season, takes its cues from a variety of sources.

Firstly, the film draws inspiration from E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, as well as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s now-beloved 1892 ballet The Nutcracker, which was itself an adaptation of the material.

But The Nutcracker and the Four Realms also follows a very similar model to that of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland in how it reimagines the original story to function as a sequel of sorts, and the results are often gorgeous to look at but also very uneven.

This version of the story also focuses on a young girl named Clara (Mackenzie Foy), who is getting ready to celebrate Christmas. But this Clara is grieving the death of her mother, who recently passed away, and unbeknownst to her was the queen of a magical land known as the Four Realms. When her father (Matthew Macfadyen) presents her with a gift from her late mother, an egg-shaped box that needs a special key to unlock it, Clara sets out in search of the key, and finds it at a Christmas Eve party at the home of her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman).

But the key gets taken from her by a little mouse, who leads her into this alternate world that is made up of the Lands of Snowflakes, Flowers, and Sweets, as well as the dangerous Fourth Realm, controlled by the fierce Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). With a nutcracker guard (Jayden Fowora-Knight) acting as her guide, Clara must face off against the Mouse King – who is depicted here as a bunch of little mice that all come together to form a massive whole, an interesting creative touch that feels underutilized – and finds herself stuck in a battle between Sugar Plum (Kiera Knightley) and Mother Ginger who, in the absence of their queen, are fighting for supremacy of the Four Realms.

For the first several scenes of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I actually found myself quite taken by it. The film opens with a sweeping helicopter shot in which the camera swoops through the air, flying us over the magical snow-covered streets of Victorian London and into Clara’s attic in an impressive single take. The cinematography is by the Oscar-winning Linus Sandgren, who is best known for his collaborations with Damien Chazelle and David O. Russell, so it’s no surprise that the film instantly draws us in on a visual level.

The production design is intricate and detailed, and James Newton Howard’s classical score does a nice job of mixing in recognizable elements of Tchaikovsky’s classic compositions. But the film actually grows less enchanting the more it delves into fantasy land, with an increasingly convoluted plot that culminates with a bland and surprisingly cheap looking CGI-laden battle against an army of tin soldiers sprung to life that seems far removed from the more old fashioned quality of these earlier scenes. It just becomes sort of forgettable, and lacks the pulse that was needed to make it really come alive.

The film is co-directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, with the former helming the project from the beginning and the latter being brought on for reshoots, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms often feels like it lacks a single authorial voice. There is a bit of a clash of styles going on in the film that adds to its sense of having an identity crisis, stuck somewhere between a lovely old school holiday fable and a generic, overproduced fantasy. A visually arresting sequence partway through where scenes from the ballet are performed in front of our lead character, offering a showcase for ballerina Misty Copeland, makes us wonder why Disney didn’t choose to more closely adapt the ballet instead.

The young Foy makes for a likeable and sensitive lead, but older veterans Mirren and Freeman feel underused, and then we have Knightley, who delivers a relentlessly campy performance as the cotton candy-haired Sugar Plum. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to have her deliver all of her lines in a sickly sweet high-pitched voice, but it’s a character trait that gets annoying rather quick and doesn’t really fit with anything else in the movie. Knightley seems to be having fun chewing up the scenery, but it’s an over the top performance that is the exact opposite of subtle, and seems to come from the Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending school of acting.

This isn’t a terrible movie, and there are moments of enchantment here and there. The cinematography and production design are often gorgeous to look at, and younger viewers especially will likely get swept up by the story. But in the end, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms sadly feels a bit hollow, like those tin soldiers that come to life during its finale. The elements were here for something special, and the film is often attractive on the outside, but it’s also strangely empty on the inside, and ultimately feels like a mere shell of something beautiful. But no one can say that it isn’t a pretty film to watch.

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