Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms holds an appealing premise. It is a reimagining of the classic story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann that performs the duel sin of making the holidays joyless and allowing the epic to seem boring. For all its gaudy costumes and grand CGI spectacle, the film is horrendously dull. It is generically rendered, unabashedly unoriginal, and entirely lifted from other recent features just with a new and underused cast.
First, what works? Scenes of the “real” world, wherein Clara (Mackenzie Foy, doe-eyed and a passenger to her own movie) and her family struggle to keep up appearances following the death of their mother. It’s Christmas and the affluent family must maintain their societal duty of making an appearance at the residence of Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer, played with no enthusiasm by Morgan Freeman. The familial emotion is real and the present string tree is an insanely fun concept. If the filmmakers had devoted more time to the emotion of the struggling family and the sense of innovation as Clara demonstrated her skill as an inventor – a very neat character detail that goes almost entirely unused through the rest of the movie – the film might have been more bearable. Additionally, there is a dazzling scene that serves as exposition for how Clara’s deceased mother first discovered the Four Realms. The scene features a ballet performance by Misty Copeland that was beautifully choreographed and staged. This is the only instance of true art in the entire film.
Instead, once Clara enters the magical world of the four realms, all sense of who she is is lost in the glitz and bustle of the CGI’d background. In this realm, she meets the regents of each realm, including the Land of Snowflakes, Land of Sweets, Land of Flowers, and Land of Amusements. She also meets the Nutcracker, named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight, lacking any charisma), who agrees to watch over her within the Realms but does little more than complain and hold arguments with a mouse.
Of the regents Clara meets, only Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, clearly overcast) and Sugar Plum, played to utter irritation by Keira Knightley, have anything to do. The sickly sweet and breathy voice Knightley adopts for her character was a misguided choice that, coupled with her extended amount of screen-time, moves the film from utter dullness to pure tedium.
As an adaptation, the script by newcomer Ashleigh Powell fails to find new relevance in an age-old and beloved story. Instead, the plot elements seem tied together from bits of previously released Disney features, chiefly Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Santa Clause 2: The Escape Clause. The visuals presented by directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston do nothing to distant those comparisons. Disney’s penchant for recycling animated sequences in the past is well-documented; this plays like a greatest hits of those recycled moments. Additionally, the story is brooding and melancholy. Even the finale seems sad and wistful, effectively sucking all the joy out of this holiday feature.
The score by James Newton Howard is a saving grace but as it is of Tschaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite it had a very strong base. However, Howard is able to apply the components of Tschaikovsky’s composition in beautiful and subtle ways. In fact, one thrilling moment is when the conductor tune’s up the orchestra right before the ballet performance and the visuals (lifted straight from Fantasia) show the silhouette of the conductor and pieces of the orchestra. While unoriginal, this moment stood out as the closest to honoring the source material of the film.
The film fails the most when attempting to be an epic. Certainly, the visuals lend themselves to grand spectacle, but there’s nothing inspiring in them. The three-dimensional world seems particularly flat due to lower quality CG-rendering. Additionally, scenes of battle are likewise lackluster as the tin soldier army are slow-moving, non-threatening, and easily dispatched without much flourish. The audience never is led to believe the heroes are in any danger so the stakes are nonexistent. In a fight for control over an entire kingdom, this should not be the case. Further, this does nothing to add excitement to the movie, adding only to the dullness.
Ultimately, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a boring and uninspired adaptation that does little to honor its source material. Its cast is neglected and overqualified for the poorly written storyline and expository dialogue. While a few scenes showcase inspired artistry that could have elevated the film to new heights, it instead struggles from a lack of purpose and meaningless spectacle.