Principal Cast : Mackenzie Foy, Jordan Fowora-Knight, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Anna Madeley, Sergei Polunin, Ellie Bamber, Tom Sweet, Jack Whitehall, Omid Djalili.
Synopsis: A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.
Although lavish by design and sumptuous by Disney’s big-budget live-action feature films go, and handled by no less than two distinguished directors in Lasse Hallstrom (who did the main shoot) and Joe Johnson (who reportedly helmed a month or two of reshoots at the behest of Disney), The Nutcracaker & The Four Realms is an absolute travesty of cinema and a dumpster fire of culture. Mired in uneven character work, bereft of the slightest hint of fun, and – rather astonishingly – lacking any sense of energy whatsoever, this inert piece of creative detritus is both boring and offensive to all who gaze upon it shallow, superficial visual designs.
Following the untimely passing of her mother, young Victorian England girl Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy – Twilight: Breaking Dawn) is given a belated Christmas present by her father, the grief-stricken Benjamin Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen). It’s a strange metallic egg-shaped object, locked and missing a key. At the behest of engineer Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), Clara ventures into a parallel world to find the key, and encounters a fantasy land of bizarre creatures ruled over by the enlightened regents – the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E Grant). She also encounters a brave Nutcracker Soldier, Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and the mysterious Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), regent of the Fourth Realm. In finding the key in the clutches of the Mouse King, Clara must risk her own life to save the Four Realms and return to her own dimension and reunite with her family.
Touted as high fantasy, Disney’s Nutcracker film is a movie destitute in depth and swaggering across the screen high on it’s own inflated sense of self-importance. Reverential to the original material and bloated by both an excess of design and British star power, The Nutcracker & The Four Realms tremulously includes the famous Tchaikovsky orchestral cues from his ballet but, bizarrely, doesn’t include much by way of dancing. Oh, there’s a small tangent of ballet with real-life dancer Misty Copeland providing a touch of class, but the rest of this hodgepodge is a cacophonous blast of Tim Burton’s eccentric-style camerawork, astonishingly detailed and overproduced costume design, and the frantic, don’t-let-the-audience-think modernity of crisp post-millennial editing. The end result is a film of such indifferent and middling narrative coherence it’s a surprise I actually made it to the end.
Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay borrows liberally from both ETA Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker And The Mouse King” and Marius Petipa’s “The Nutcracker”, coagulating into some formless insanity masquerading as a kid’s flick. Ostenisbly a film about a girl finding herself and reconciling her relationship with her father following a family tragedy, under the guidance of Hallstrom and Johnston there’s nary a subtle moment to be found within the garish, Willy Wonka-esque grotesquerie the film turns into. It’s set in Victorian-era England but it makes nought difference, given the fantastical CS Lewis-lite operatic sensibility the film takes on, what with drone-like owls, rat-tat tin soldiers and CG mice and Helen Mirren slumming it as a crack-faced villain (or is she?). There’s barely any real depth to the film, content to offer slight character development for Mackenzie Foy’s poorly written Clara and even then breathlessly disregarding it almost entirely for the sake of narrative expediency. Clara’s relationship with her father is a decent hook upon which to hang a lot of the character’s problems but the film insistently avoids really delving into this much past a simplistic paternal love angle, and with this rushed and diffident set-up it’s little wonder the rest of the film founders with unwieldy “be your true self” populism.
Other elements about the film are rancid indeed, including (but not limited to) Kiera Knightley’s teeth-gnashing role as the squeaky-voiced Sugar Plum Fairy, a performance akin to listening to fingernails on a chalkboard whilst having root canal surgery and watching an Achilles tendon snap. Knightley obviously took the role for the paycheck and another headline credit to her name, but it’s a stupid character with little redeeming quality other than she’s as impish as the Fairy Godmother in Shrek but without Joanna Lumley’s utter class backing it up. As mentioned, Helen Mirren plays a role that doesn’t just skim over her talent but practically pulverises it between CG backdrops, asinine dialogue and the eye-watering costume design the film engages in. Richard E Grant is unrecognisable as Shiver, the Regent of the Land Of The Snowflakes (I had to google that) who looks suspiciously like a close family member of Jack Frost from the Santa Clause franchise. Matthew Macfadyen tries gamely to offer something approaching believable humanity in the small role of Clara’s father but it’s snuffed out by nonsensical scene editing and a perplexing indifference to his arc. Lastly – and by no means leastly – Morgan Freeman absolutely payed his house off with this three-scene cameo as a vaguely pirate-like purveyor of exposition, the utterly useless Drosselmeyer (a name which halfway describes this film, really), a character whose sole purpose it is is to explain to the audience Clara’s mission to the Realms, be mysterious, and look knowingly into the middle distance like a fucking fanfic Gandalf. Ugh.
Hallstrom and Johnston, neither of whom take full blame individually for this miasma but both of whom ought to hang their heads in shame, take a great cast and utterly trash them by hiding them behind, within or to the side of some truly beautiful production design. From costuming, makeup, set design and the film’s lavish CG effects, Nutcracker wants not for a quality canvas on which to paint a beautiful landscape. Sadly, the canvas is underutilised with an unrestrained rainbow of colour and saturated costumes, the intricacies of which are lost in the riot of camerawork, movement and editing. The film’s pace is… let’s say enthusiastic, shall we? – once Clara enters the fantasy world of the movie, and it takes a lot to keep up with all the kooky, weird and utterly bizarre characters that are thrown at the screen. Folks familiar with the Nutcracker story will probably go “ahh yes, that’s so-and-so” the whole time but I, being largely ignorant of the minutiae of the property didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on half the time. Things weren’t explained, they sort of happened and we kind of just had to accept it. Given the money spent on making the film look as good as this, you’d think an ounce of thought might have gone into making the characters or plot somewhat relateable.
The Nutcracker & The Four Realms is visually stunning but lacks any kind of coherence or depth to its procession of increasingly desperate set-pieces. It’s a frantic, emotionless dirge dressed up all pretty by those big Disney bankrolls, failing utterly to maximise the radiance of Mackenzie Foy’s beauty or the family-friendly approximation of another vague Narnia-clone that could have been terrific. This Nutcracker is an absolute mess from start to finish, a tonal vomit onto the screen that is as meaningless as it is beautiful. If you turn off the volume and marvel at the splendour of the film’s production design it’s a good way to waste 90 minutes, but if you’re actively invested in the story and/or characters you’ll find this film a tough (nay, rotten) nut to crack.
© 2019, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.