Mackenzie Foy plays a teenager drawn into a magical parallel world where she encounters Keira Knightley as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Disney’s new take on the classic holiday tale and beloved ballet.
Disney’s attempt to wrestle E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story and the perennially popular Tchaikovsky ballet into a fairy tale with a modern attitude is like one of those big, elaborately decorated, butter cream-frosted cakes that looks delicious but can make you quite ill. Something else that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms calls to mind is those mechanized holiday department store windows, stuffed with so many busy elements you can barely take them all in before some obnoxious kid behind you is nudging you to keep the line moving. So much attention has been lavished on the sumptuous visuals that the story and characters are suffocated.
The big-budget fantasy certainly paints its share of pretty screen pictures, and may hold some appeal for preteen girls, in particular the baby bunheads with a fondness for the ballet version. But it’s a Frankenstein’s monster. It lacks the captivating charms of Disney’s live-action remakes of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, or the fabulous distraction of Angelina Jolie that kept the revisionist Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, semi-entertaining. It’s more like Tim Burton’s garish, exhausting Alice in Wonderland and its unwatchable sequel, borrowing elements far and wide without ever settling on what kind of movie it wants to be.
The schizoid quality is perhaps not surprising considering the incompatible styles of the two filmmakers who share directing credit. The bulk of it was completed by the reliably pedestrian Lasse Hallstrom, before Joe Johnston stepped in for extensive reshoots, presumably to punch up the CG-driven action. A similar division of duties appears to have happened with the screenplay, with Hallstrom working from newcomer Ashleigh Powell’s original script and Johnston weaving in additional material by an uncredited Tom McCarthy.
To put it bluntly, the story is a convoluted mess, occasionally inching toward interesting developments but almost invariably careening off in some frantic new direction before lasting involvement can take hold. The filmmakers seem aware that this is an issue, drenching the action in an almost nonstop flood of lush music that shuffles Tchaikovsky with James Newton Howard. Oversaturation is the default setting.
The movie’s best asset is young lead Mackenzie Foy as Clara, a 14-year-old Victorian girl with the sharp logistical mind of a budding engineer. She’s feisty and determined enough to appeal to contemporary sensibilities, yet not so much that she pulls you out of the old-world reality that grounds the story. And Keira Knightley brings a mischievous campy spirit to the Sugar Plum Fairy, gliding around crowned by an upsweep of cotton-candy curls and speaking in a breathy, excitable squeak until she reveals her not entirely unexpected petulant side. If the conception of the character owes something to Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games series, well, that’s consistent with a movie that constantly recalls superior inspirations. She also flutters about on dragonfly wings, just like Tinker Bell.
In the opening sequence, we’re in Harry Potter territory as an owl soars and swoops over Olde London Town, or a mostly CG version of it, setting the Christmastime scene via a massive decorated tree in a public square. Clever Clara Stahlbaum and her young brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) are up in the attic of the family home using toys and the laws of physics to rig a complicated mouse trap, foreshadowing a key plot point later on.
It’s Christmas Eve, and the children’s sorrowful, distant father (Matthew Macfadyen) summons them downstairs to present them with gifts left for them by their recently deceased mother Marie (Anna Madeley). Clara receives an ornate egg-shaped music box with a cryptic note from her mother that reads, “Everything you need is inside.” But the box is locked, with no key.
Much of this early setup has a pleasingly old-fashioned feel, with the always excellent Macfadyen suggesting tender emotional depths to be explored. The family’s arrival at an annual Christmas Eve ball also packs visual splendor as Linus Sandgren’s camera reveals a breathtaking shot of couples decked out in costume designer Jenny Beavan’s impressive period finery, whirling around a dance floor to the romantic strains of “Waltz of the Flowers.” But as soon as Morgan Freeman appears, in familiar “twinkly-eyed, wise, benevolent geezer” mode as the evening’s host, Drosselmeyer, the movie’s wearying more-is-more aesthetic starts to chafe.
Drosselmeyer, an inventor of fantastical gadgets, is Clara’s godfather. He raised Marie after she was orphaned at a young age. Rather than just hand out Christmas gifts at the ball, he traditionally sets up a treasure-hunt web of golden threads with the names of each child attending. Clara’s thread leads her to a snow-covered parallel world where time moves much faster — cue lots of clockwork mechanisms, a la Hugo. There she finds the music box key, which is promptly snatched by a mouse.
She meets a strategic ally in Captain Phillip Hoffman, a Nutcracker soldier apparently come to life, though you’d hardly know it from Jayden Fowora-Knight’s wooden performance. Phillip informs Clara that Marie was the queen of the realms, which makes her the princess. He warns her against following the thieving mouse into the dangerous Fourth Realm, but Clara is fearless, even when being pursued by a rodent infestation that assumes the mammoth form of the Mouse King. She also has her first brush with the banished Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), whose fearsome hideout inside a giant mechanical figure in a big top circus-tent gown is straight out of The Wizard of Oz.
Phillip whisks Clara off to the palace from where the realms are ruled, which production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas renders as an architectural jumble of Russian exteriors, an Eastern courtyard and standard haute European interiors — mirroring the movie’s overall mishmash of styles. They make their way past a pair of prissy palace guards (Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall) who bicker like peevish boyfriends in tiresome shtick that falls flat, like much of the strained comedy. Clara meets three regents: Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) of the Land of Flowers; Shiver (Richard E. Grant), Land of Snowflakes; and Knightley’s Sugar Plum, Land of Cavities. I mean Sweets.
Because the filmmakers presumably felt obligated to include the Nutcracker Ballet in some form, the action switches into presentational gear. Sugar Plum narrates a danced depiction of the four realms, with Misty Copeland pirouetting among pop-up Victorian picture-book stage sets. Copeland is a sublime dancer, but this interlude stops the story dead in its tracks, a problem reflected in the decision to cut away to Clara and Sugar Plum floating above the realms in a hot-air balloon. Clara does learn, however, that the exile of the fourth regent, Mother Ginger, triggered a war, and the other regents are looking to their new princess to stop it. Retrieving the key is the key.
There’s a lot going on here, with a bunch of overqualified actors struggling to make much of an impression from beneath their beyond-Baroque makeup and costuming. Grant perhaps has the hardest job, stuck behind his icicle beard, but at least he remains somewhat restrained, unlike Mexican comedian Derbez. Watching Mirren do her whip-cracking carnival pirate thing, with the face of a broken porcelain doll and a crew of creepy clown stooges, should be fun. But even when the true villain is revealed and platoons of toy soldiers acquire menacing life-size animated form, the stakes just never feel very high. The story remains stubbornly lacking in excitement or enchantment; it’s more assaultive, to the point of becoming dull.
True to the Disney playbook, it’s inevitable that Clara will learn the requisite lessons about keeping her mother’s spirit alive, being sensitive to her father’s loss, believing in magic as much as science, and trusting her own intelligent instincts in sticky situations. But Foy’s lovely screen presence aside, the human heart of the movie gets lost amid all the silliness, schmaltz and feverish yet weirdly distancing action.
Clearly, this was conceived as a prestige project, as evidenced by the recruitment of Gustavo Dudamel to conduct the score and make a brief on-camera appearance (possibly referencing Fantasia), as well as a featured piano solo by Lang Lang. Then there’s the bonus of Copeland again, dancing on the end credits with Sergei Polunin. But it would take more than an entire corps de ballet and full orchestra to breathe class and cohesion into this charmless misfire.
Production companies: The Mark Gordon Company, Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Matthew Macfadyen, Ellie Bamber, Thomas Sweet, Omid Djalili, Jack Whitehall, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley
Directors: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Ashleigh Powell, suggested by the short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by E.T.A. Hoffmann; and the Nutcracker Ballet, by Marius Petipa
Producers: Mark Gordon, Larry Franco
Executive producers: Sara Smith, Lindy Goldstein
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Music: James Newton Howard
Editor: Stuart Levy
Visual effects supervisor: Max Wood
Choreographer: Liam Scarlett
Casting: Lucy Bevan
Rated PG, 99 minutes