Director: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston | Screenwriter: Ashleigh Powell | Cast: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman | Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures | Running Time: 99 min. | MPAA Rating: PG
Far from the grace of a ballet, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a gigantic smear of fantasy that puts in the minimal effort of adventure and inspiration. It’s sadly yet another property taken by Disney that comes with the best of intentions but the sloppiest of executions. A mere plugging in of all the predictable elements churns out a snoozer of a matinee, far too timid to be a Christmas classic or the exciting epic it aims to be.
Part of the problem is that the young Clara, played by a charming Mackenzie Foy, is too nice of a character to be in great need of an adventure. She’s smart with physics, handy with mechanical devices, and clever enough to design Rube Goldberg devices in her attic to catch mice, inadvertently creating the Mouse Trap game before its time. But her mother has passed away and she is desperate to find some purpose in her life with a mysterious locked egg. Her godfather, played by Morgan Freeman with an eyepatch, has the key to unlock it but he won’t just give it to her. In order to properly appreciate the gift, which has a mostly symbolic message concealed, he’ll have to send her on a journey through his mother’s fantasy world of the four realms. It’s easy enough to find in his massive mansion; just down the hall, the dark room on the left, can’t miss it.
The four realms are decadent only by design. She crosses into the big kingdom her mother once resided over and meets the representatives of the realms. This includes the two overly-goofy fops that run the realms of Flowers and Snowflakes, while Keira Knightley puts on her squeakiest of anime voices for the role of the bubbly Sugarplum Fairy. There’s also Mother Ginger of the other realm, played by Helen Mirren with a literal crack in her face, who may or may not be the villain of this world. It can be hard to tell with her minions of mice and a giant robot assembled from a circus tent.
Not much wonder comes from such elaborate sets, nor a sense of danger and urgency of the climactic battle intentionally left aloof just enough to make its twist all the more obvious. How much is there to be invested in with sword-swinging tin soldiers battling living nesting dolls? Consider how the Nutcracker bodyguard character of Captain Phillip, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, is a great straight man but with nobody to play off of. This leads to many awkward moments of trying to infuse some humor into a plot too by-the-numbers to ever be engaging. How much comedy can one muster out of talking to a rat that only squeaks back?
And then, as if by mercy, the film provides a sliver of light with a fantastic ballet performance, with the splendid dancer Misty Copeland leading a stage act of costumed dancers, pushed sets, and spotlights of candles. Further teasing this better film is the end credit sequence that features more of Copeland in a version of The Nutcracker that seems to infuse some street dance into the moves. Now THERE is a movie. Why couldn’t we have that brilliant ballet of a movie instead of the standard special effects bonanza that throws so much money at the screen and inspires so little in the imagination?
I wish I could give the film more credit for its inspiring message for little girls, given how Clara turns into a daring hero willing to jump into combat and use her mastery of physics to save the day. But the whole film goes about the motions so passively from the fantasy playbook to the point of phoning in the positive message as though there wasn’t much heart put into its assembly, that it’s more of a chore than an escape. Consider the film a fruitcake; decadent on the outside but hollow on the inside, leaving you hungry for something more, if only to wash the vanilla taste out of your mouth.