The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Disney’s latest live-action fantasy adventure, “inspired by” the 1816 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. I put inspired by in quotation marks because it feels a lot more inspired by C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” stories than anything nutcracker related. It is a visually impressive movie with a story that makes even the most amazing sights boring after a while. It is yet another tale about a teenager from our world destined to save the inhabitants of a land she never knew existed. It adds absolutely nothing new to the formula. It is a dull and predictable production that is much more forgettable than it is bad.
The protagonist is Clara, a young woman living with her father and two siblings. They are still reeling from the death of their mother, Clara most of all. On Christmas, they go to a fancy party where the guests are given gifts. While looking for her gift, Clara wanders into a magical land. She quickly discovers this world is troubled by war, her mother was the queen and now she is responsible for uniting the four realms. The characters are clichéd types and this story takes no risks. All the imagination went into the visuals.
But what visuals! A giant mouse made up of thousands of mice and a creepy carnival with menacing clowns are the best of them, however the entire kingdom is a striking creation. Even relatively simple things such as a waterfall or a bridge connecting two of the realms is given a neat little spin. I also liked how they differentiated between Clara’s familiar London home and this new world. It is slightly reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz in that way. Four Realms is fun to look at. For a bit. Eventually, the lack of magic generated by the overall story drags everything down with it.
The biggest problem here is we have seen all of this done far better so many times before. Squeezing the nutcracker into it (the original story and small pieces of the ballet) does not make it fresh. It is similar to Disney’s other live-action fantasy adaptation from this year, A Wrinkle in Time. Both are beautifully designed, but completely fail to engage the imagination from a story or character perspective.
Also like A Wrinkle in Time, Four Realms has quite a few talented people in front of and behind the camera. Its co-directors are two-time Oscar nominee Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, who has directed successful blockbusters like Captain America: The First Avenger. Its cast includes Morgan Freeman as Clara’s all-knowing grandfather, Dame Helen Mirren as the ruler of the dark and mysterious Fourth Realm, Richard E. Grant as the ruler of the Ice Realm and a scenery chewing Keira Knightley as Sugar Plum. That alone should have made the movie fun to watch. Sadly, with the occasional exception of Knightley, everyone plays their roles straight, even those playing the wackier characters. Mix that with the lame story and uninspiring action sequences and you have a product that feels significantly longer than its 90 minutes (minus the end credits).
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a Christmas-themed movie with a familiar title, recognizable stars and a big marketing campaign. Slap the Disney name on top and the result should be a hit. Financially, it could be. But artistically it seems as though nobody really tried.
The final line from my review of A Wrinkle in Time is just as appropriate here: “It is like everyone went through the motions on this project except for the visual effects artists, who did a heck of a job.”
2½ out of 5
Mackenzie Foy as Clara
Jayden Fowora-Knight as Phillip
Keira Knightley as Sugar Plum
Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger
Eugenio Derbez as Hawthorne
Richard E. Grant as Shiver
Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer
Directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston
Screenplay by Ashleigh Powell