By Liam Lacey
Disney’s new Christmas offering, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, is a big tottering hollow wedding cake of familiar ingredients. The original E.T.A. Hoffman Nutcracker story — the girl, the Nutcracker soldier, and the war against the mouse king — is used as a foundation layer, topped by borrowings from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia stories, and The Wizard of Oz. The James Newton Howard score is filled with classic Disney strings and choral “ahhs” mixed with Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” and performance segments of the seasonally popular Marius Petipa ballet along with a Fantasia-inspired dance interlude, performed by ballerina Misty Copeland.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this greatest-hits patchwork approach or the correct racially diverse, girl-power script from Ashleigh Powell. There’s also nothing new or necessary about this jumbled, pretty mess of a movie, which barely covers the seams between its varied pilferings. There’s even a touch of Dickens here, in the Victorian London-set Christmas story, starring dewy American teen actress Mackenzie Foy (she played Kristen Stewart’s demi-vampire daughter in a couple of the Twilight movies) as Clara, a newly motherless neglected middle-child.
On Christmas Eve, her emotionally remote father (Matthew Macfadyen) presents each child a gift from their recently deceased mother who, like Clara, was a mechanical whiz. The presents include mother’s ball gown for the big sister (Ellie Bamber), toy soldiers for the little brother (Tom Sweet), and for Clara, a golden egg-shaped box and a note promising that everything she needs is “inside.” At a fancy dress party that night, Clara confers with her inventor godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) and somehow, slips through one of those convenient portals to an alternative Narnia-Wonderland magical world.
She soon meets her Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who helps Clara save the “four realms” (Flower, Snowflakes, Sweets and who cares?) from a tyrannical queen, who is either the imperious Helen Mirren or helium-voiced lavender fairy, Keira Knightley. In the exhausting bombardment of special effects that ensue, the standout creation here is the mouse king, a nightmarish pile of intertwined grasping vermin that swells up like a gust of leaves. The motion capture moves are from street dancer Lil Buck; kind of a ballsy move from the studio known as the House of Mouse.
Assume that Nutcracker’s haphazard pacing is partly the result of two different directors working separately: The sentimental side from Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules) who handed over the film for reshoots to visual effects specialist Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji). Though the movie might have been more coherent with just one director, there’s no evidence that the latest Nutcracker rehash ever had a deeper purpose than stuffing Disney’s Christmas stockings.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Directred by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnson. Written by Ashleigh Powelll. Starring Mackenzie Foy, Mattew Macfadyen, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and Jayden Fowora-Knight. Opens wide November 2.