Review: There’s Little Holiday Joy—And Even Less Sense—in Disney’s The Nutcracker and The Four Realms
It took two people to direct this movie. And not two unknown directors who might have been easily manipulated by the studio, but two talented, established filmmakers—very different filmmakers who are responsible for some terrific works.
The Swedish-born Lasse Hallström is one of the bonafide kings of the art house, constructing works like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat (and a lot of ABBA videos in his early years, which has to count for something). Joe Johnson specializes in popular entertainment from The Rocketeer and October Sky to what many consider to be the finest of all of the Marvel movies, Captain America: The First Avenger. So when you combine art-house sensibility and sensitivity with experienced audience-pleasing, you get, well...garbage in the form of the latest crack at the Nutcracker story, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.[caption id="attachment_40407" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Image courtesy of Disney[/caption]
The best thing I can say about the film, written by Ashleigh Powell (based on both the short story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" by E.T.A. Hoffman, and the Nutcracker Ballet), is that it looks like it cost a lot of money, with elaborate sets, spiffy special effects, and a cast of hundreds (if you count toy soldiers brought to life as part of the cast). There are also a great number of truly fun actors at play here, but lead Mackenzie Foy (The Conjuring, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, both parts) as Clara is not one of them. Clara is mostly a mopey dud, who is understandably upset that her mother has recently died and decides it’s okay to be unforgivably mean to her suffering father (Matthew Macfadyen) for not grieving enough, when he’s actually just trying to put on a brave face for her and her two younger siblings. Foy’s primary acting skill appears to be scowling and appearing woeful, and when placed next to actors as expressive as Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, or Keira Knightley, she comes across as wooden.
Clara has a talent for tinkering. She can build or fix just about anything with moving parts, a gift she inherited from her mother and one that was encouraged by her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). A holiday party at his home leads Clara on a secret journey to discover a key left to her by her mother that unlocks a device that looks like a mechanical egg. The path she follows takes her into another dimension known as the Four Realms—the Land of Snowflakes (overseen by Shiver, played by Grant), the Land of Flowers (led by Hawthorne, played by Eugenio Derbez), and the Land of Sweets (led by Clara’s most cherished ally Sugar Plum, played by Knightley). The more dangerous and never-spoken-about Fourth Realm is ruled by the evil Mother Ginger (Mirren), whose Mouse King (a giant monster made up of thousands of mice—sure to make your skin crawl) steals Clara’s key, forcing her to lead a team into the Fourth Realm to retrieve it. Somehow getting the key will start a machine that will bring the realms back together in sweet harmony and cure all bad things in the universe, so of course we ought to be suspicious.
The storytelling of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is so clunky and pointless that it seems as if a child is writing it as we’re watching. Plot lines are invented and surprises are revealed, seemingly at random with no sense of logic or motivation. There’s a lovely dance sequence starring Misty Copeland (as the Ballerina Princess) tossed in to tie the film to its balletic roots, and if there’s any other reason for it, I missed it. I would highly recommend that if you make it to the end of the film, stick around for a proper ballet number, also with Copeland, that is far more impressive than anything else in this lackadaisical movie. Even the title character of the movie, a nutcracker named Phillip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), is given so little to do and severely lacks an interesting personality that you can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about regarding him. He’s a faithful sidekick for Clara and a strong fighter against the aforementioned tin soldiers who nearly take over the Four Realms, but beyond that he’s a stiff.
For all its opulence and preciousness, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is devoid of any depth or originality. If you’re going to tell a new version of a familiar story, don’t just mash different versions of it together, but make it something vibrant and interesting. Give us a reason to care about seeing it again, go beyond giving nods to previous tellings to make it something special. I genuinely don’t understand why this was made at all, other than to possibly introduce new generations to this classic tale. It’s just difficult to imagine younger audiences taking a shine to this telling at all, at least not in large numbers.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ktuvx9hrMw
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.