The new Disney film THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS is many things: a children’s adventure story, an eye-popping spectacle, and a 109-minute endorsement of animated mice. (CGI rodents, actually. Mickey’s heirs?) What it isn’t is the Nutcracker story in any traditional sense. Here, the famous ballet and score are almost treated as afterthoughts. Instead, this new take on the holiday material owes more to properties like Disney’s version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA than it does to the famous ballet and Tchaikovsky’s iconic suites. Children, particularly young girls, will love the female empowerment angle, the extravagant CGI, and the kitschy star turns. Adults? Probably not as much.
As adults, let alone film critics, it’s difficult to assess such material aimed at younger children as they tend to play broadly with nary a hint of subtly. What will make children howl with pleasure will likely make those over 15 roll their eyes with exasperation. Still, this could have been a movie pleasing for the whole family, as much of the Disney catalog has proven for decades. Instead, the material here is played much too broadly, with every emotion and action underlined again and again. The tone of Kenneth Branagh’s live-action CINDERELLA from 2015 should’ve been the template to follow, but instead, this feels influenced by one of those over-the-top Disney Channel afternoon programs aimed at kids home from school.
The story is jacked from the get-go as we follow a tenacious little mouse run all over town as the camera speedily follows him up and down London from the 1800’s. He finally ends up at the upper-class home of the Stahlbaums, who provide a gloomy contrast to the manic beginning. Even though the old town is done up like a fantastical winter wonderland, the Stahlbaums are not in the Christmas spirit. Mom has recently died, and patriarch Matthew Macfayden gloomily gets his three kids ready for a party.
At the party, middle-child Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is particularly glum, wandering away from the other guests, and finding joy only in discussing the inner workings of a clock with her eccentric godfather Drosselmeyer. He’s played by Morgan Freeman, in a distracting Frederick Douglas wig and pirate-ish eyepatch, putting the sage in the season as he helps clue her in on how to unlock the puzzle box gift from her late mother. Before you can say, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date,” Clara unlocks some magic and is transported to an enchanted world of the Four Realms.
There, she meets Phillip, the Nutcracker Guard (Jayden Fowora-Knight) patrolling the bridge to the Four Realms. He explains a ton of exposition to her and us in the audience, and it turns out that Clara’s mother was the queen of this imaginary place and now her daughter is earmarked to be the next queen. That doesn’t sit well with the jealous Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), a scarred battle-ax who commutes in a giant toy of her likeness. Phillip saves Clara from the giant’s clutches by partnering with that frisky mouse and a thousand of his brothers who band together to turn into a monster of mice to topple the toy. Kids may find that cool, but it reminded me of the multiple vermin crawling all over Ernest Borgnine in 1971’s WILLARD. Yuck.
Then, at the Queen’s castle, the two young people meet the other key supporting characters, ostensibly pulled from the lore of the Nutcracker, including Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), the flowery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E. Grant). They seem to be set up to be her cohorts for her pending adventures to regain control of the Four Realms a la THE WIZARD OF OZ, but alas, Derbez and Grant all but disappear from the narrative after 20 minutes. Why cast such skilled comic actors as those veteran performers and give them so little to do? Their performances literally begin and end with their elaborate costumes.
That allows Sugar Plum to take center stage when she’s revealed to be the real villain of the piece, a pissy pixie who wants to usurp Clara’s claim to the throne. Knightley clearly relishes playing a baddie, but her character is pitched too manic as well. Sure, Sugar is given a few funny bits by Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay, like when she nervously eats her cotton candy hair, but the character is written too daft to become a genuine threat in the story. Knightley’s take on the roll doesn’t help matters as she does an overly mannered goo-goo voice, half Marilyn Monroe whispers, half Elizabeth Banks sing-song from THE HUNGER GAMES.
As the film goes on it continues to increase in size, noise, and effects. Each land, each set-piece, each visual is so dazzling and excessive, it starts to become irritating to the eye to look at. The editing and music huff and puff through each scene, never letting anything breathe either. Worse still, is the fact that Clara is turned into an action hero to cover for the fact that there’s very little character for Foy to play. Perhaps this film’s two directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston were too busy corralling all the CGI evidenced in every frame, but clearly, nuances of story and character were given short shrift.
Perhaps they too were eating Sugar Plum’s hair as the film seems like one big, nerve-jangling sugar high. The action is too hellzapoppin, the editing far too jumpy and abrupt. The climax feels rushed, and some shots don’t even match in the cutting. Was the film truncated to accommodate kiddies with short attention spans, or was it because the film’s excesses tested as to trying for two full hours? Even the film’s niftiest effect of the toy soldiers as its downside as they wear out their welcome by dominating the climax far too much.
The one time the movie does take its time and indeed, become truly magical, is early in the party scene when the guests watch Misty Copeland lead a troupe of dancers to bring moments of the Nutcracker ballet to life. It’s effortlessly gorgeous and effervescent in all the ways the rest of the film strains to be. As incredible as all the CGI effects are in throughout the movie, this sequence shows that human grace is inarguably more captivating. At least it was for this adult in the audience. Kids under ten? They can have their tower of rodents.