Based on both Marius Petipa’s enduring ballet and E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, Disney’s lavish new fantasy The Nutcracker and the Four Realms clearly hopes to follow in the box office busting footsteps of last year’s Beauty and the Beast. It certainly shares much of that same magical visual style and grace, however the story itself struggles to get it’s footing quite right.
Clearly aiming to marry the fantasy enchantment of Bill Condon’s aforementioned hit live-action remake, with the more action adventure (and feminist tinged) beats of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is not quite as entertaining as either. The story starts with young Clara (a good and driven Mackenzie Foy) defying her straight-faced father (Matthew Macfadyen) and leaving a ballroom dance in search of a key that will unlock a box left to her by her late mother. From there the film takes on a The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe vibe as Clara enters a snowy mystical realm, divided by the wicked actions of the mysterious Mother Ginger.
For a good 40 minutes or so the plot is essentially Clara searching for this key and wandering around a landscape of HD Laptop background friendly environments. It eventually gets going a bit and while some of the later nutcracker soldier and mice battles are fun, they don’t quite offer anything as spectacular as the Underland battle with the Jabberwocky or the other set pieces of recent fantasy hits. That being said, the film is at its best during the set pieces and while offering a predictable twist/revelation, the film has its heart in the right place, which helps make for a familiar but watchable 90+ minutes of aesthetically driven fun.
Along the way, famous faces pop up from Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman to Jack Whitehall and Omjid Djalili and all of them are fine in their parts, though many are but a fleeting part of the film and overall, many characters don’t play hugely impactful roles. The strongest turns are by Foy who leads the film well, accompanied by a charming Jayden Fowora-Knight as Nutcracker captain Hoffman, who aids Clara on her journey. Though the film has to be worth seeing alone for Keira Knightley’s bafflingly unusual turn as Sugar Plum Fairy, Knightley is almost LSD-like in the role and I am still not entirely sure whether it is good or bad but my word it’s something!
No doubt about it, the plot is a bit slow and untidy but the there is plenty of goodwill in Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston’s film, even with the delivery being off. That said, what really keeps the film flowing is the work visually and audibly that has gone into every scene. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is often spellbinding and brings to life the fabulously eccentric effects, sets and costumes, with a ballet sequence in the film being an absolute standout. All of it is well backed by a quite beautiful score by James Netwon Howard, which updates many moments of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky superbly and the music for the film really is fabulous.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms cracks under the weight of the films it takes clear influence from but for the right audience, there is still a fun watch here, carried aloft by a polished presentation that paper over those plotting and pacing cracks. Not as memorable an offering as others of this kind but enjoyable enough while it dances away onscreen and not quite as disastrous as some have said.