Nutcracker and the Four Realms, The (United States, 2018)

November 01, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Nutcracker and the Four Realms, The Poster

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a miscalculation of Magic Kingdom-sized proportions. Designed for and targeted at prepubescent girls, the holiday-themed fantasy adventure drowns in CGI, underdeveloped characters, and a plot utterly devoid of energy and excitement. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better it might have been as an animated production, where the visuals could have been more appropriately integrated into the whole and the story might have retained the magic that eludes this live action version. It’s a little like Beauty and the Beast, where oh-so-much was lost in the translation. The 1991 Oscar-nominated interpretation was glorious. The 2017 remake was prosaic.

The film begins with an abundance of promise. The opening scene, a computer-generated flyover of a snowy Victorian London on Christmas Eve, is amazing. Set around the turn of the (19th) century, after Tchaikovsky’s 1892 The Nutcracker and before electricity and automobiles came to the city, the film follows the adventures of Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), a bright and nimble teenage girl who discovers she is the rightful queen of the mystical Four Realms. Loosely based on the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann and incorporating more than a dash of C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” tales, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms seeks to fashion a fantasy-based fairy tale for modern audiences. Unfortunately, its lack of sophistication limits its appeal.

One of the things that works in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is an emotional component that has Clara, her younger brother Fitz (Tom Sweet), her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber), and her father (Matthew Macfadyen), struggling with the death of her mother, Marie. This element is handled with sensitivity and gives the early scenes a bittersweet tone. It’s Christmas and everyone is expected to be joyful but Clara and her father are struggling to hold back the tears. One can see the hand of director Lasse Hallstrom, who once made moving films before entering his commercial phase, in these sequences. Hallstrom, like the movie, loses his way upon entering The Four Realms.

That happens at a Christmas party hosted by the mysterious inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), whose gift to Clara is the key to a gilded egg left to her by her mother. To get it, she must follow a string that leads her through odd passages and into a wondrous snowscape. Echoing Dorothy, she notes, “I’m not in London anymore.” There she meets Captain Phillip the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that her mother is the queen. However, since Marie is dead, that means the throne rightfully belongs to Clara. Phillip takes her to meet the regents of three of the four realms: Sugar Plum (Kiera Knightley), Shiver (Richard E. Grant), and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez). She learns that the fourth regent, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), is in rebellion. Clara realizes that she has come to this fantasy world not only to find the key to open her mother’s egg but to save the Four Realms from division and civil war.

It’s sad to see a movie with such an impressive visual sense and fronted by some talented actors deliver lackluster results. In trying to make The Nutcracker and the Four Realms less like its Toy Story-esque source material and more like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the filmmakers have turned this timeless classic into an uninspired, predictable tale of an untried girl who claims her birthright by saving a magical kingdom. One could argue that the most imaginative aspect is the credits sequence, which features an abbreviated excerpt from The Nutcracker ballet as interpreted by Misty Copeland.

As far as the cast goes, American Mackenzie Foy (who sports a credible British accent) is the standout, showing emotional versatility and vulnerability as the capable Clara. Kiera Knightley is oddly out-of-place; she seems uncomfortable going over-the-top in her weird Sugar Plum makeup and it shows. Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren are barely in the movie; neither could have required more than a handful of days’ filming.

Although the bulk of the movie was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, his unavailability for reshoots led to Joe Johnston being brought on board to finish things. This did not create a controversy. Hallstrom returned during post-production and the two men agreed to share the directorial credit (something the DGA approved). Unfortunately, the finished product feels more like something made by Johnston, whose resume includes a number of hollow but special effects-heavy productions (Jurassic Park 3 and Jumanji being examples). Excepting the early sequences, Hallstrom’s ability to tap into the characters’ humanity is largely missing.

Younger girls who love Disney princesses (Clara being the latest in a long line of them, although she’s more feisty and independent than some) may be enchanted by The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Everyone else, even those (or perhaps especially those) with a fondness for The Nutcracker may find themselves visually titillated but otherwise unimpressed with this latest fairy tale interpretation. Disney’s new fascination with live action for this kind of story is puzzling and this movie’s blandness makes one wonder why such an obvious choice for animation wouldn’t be produced as such.

Nutcracker and the Four Realms, The (United States, 2018)