Synopsis – A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.
My Take – The holiday season is almost upon us, which means it is also a perfect time for Hollywood to churn out family-oriented flicks catering to both kids and adults alike. It is quite a well-known fact by now that, Disney has been leading the charge with the genre for decades now, especially considering they have films like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Alice in the Wonderland among others as perfect examples on how families will flock to theaters for their live-action adaptions, no matter their quality in storytelling. Here, the mouse company has ambitiously adapted E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ along with Marius Petipa’s ‘The Nutcracker Ballet’, and folded it into an shiny adventure, with a heavy dose of female empowerment to better entice modern audiences.
The result is a film, just like the earlier released ‘A Wrinkle In Time’, that offers lots of eye candy, but has no heart and soul. Despite boasting a stellar talent and cast with the likes of Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Morgan Freeman, this cinematic endeavor turned out to be nothing but an unholy and misguided collaboration. By often owing more narratively to its cinematic genre predecessors like Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia films than its actual source material, this film points to where everything went wrong with this terrible and miscalculated adaptation.
Perhaps those who already hold a deep affection for the film’s source material won’t feel so cheated by this adaptation. Maybe those who swooned over the style of Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland will be similarly swept up in this pretty adventure and its pretty heroine. But for me, the film was a grand idea bungled in an emotionally anemic execution. There’s such grandeur here! Such risks! But little personality. And without that, the film is as hollow as a tin soldier and as wooden as a nutcracker.
The story follows Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), a young genius, who is still mourning the loss of her beloved mother Marie. On Christmas Eve, her grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen) delivers the presents Marie left for each of the three kids, which includes a mechanically inclined ornate egg for Clara that requires a specialty key to unlock the hidden message Clara believes her mother has left for her inside. Being an engineering expert, Clara tries everything at first, but then enlists the help of her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), to help open the trinket, at his mansion during a lavish Christmas party. During her search, Clara finds herself transported to another world where her late mother was the queen of the fantastical land.
Quickly pairing up with Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a Nutcracker soldier, she enters the mystical world of four realms and runs into their current rules, Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Hawthrone (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E. Grant), who welcome her as their Princess. While she is swiftly swept up in the pageantry of this land of flowers, snowflakes, and candy, Sugar Plum also warns her that all is not well in the four realms, as Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the treasonous ruler of the Land of Amusement, the fourth realm, has been using her mice minions as her army in order to brew war over them. With no choice left to her, Clara must do whatever it takes to use her position to keep her mother’s legacy and kingdom alive.
There’s a lot of stuff going on here so hold onto your popcorn. Whereas much of the film unfolds much as you would expect, it does so with expediency that its brethren should take a lesson from. In common with The Book of Henry, another ill-conceived, made-for-nobody film, this latest Disney live action film opens in Rube Goldberg machine mode and continues in the same manner, with lots of unnecessary guff and diversions. Credited to dual directors Lasse Hallstrom (A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnson (Jumanji), the film feels like a project assembled by committee, with almost nary an original note, either in the story beats or the production design. Nor is there much jeopardy built into the action, which is abundant, though it’s hard to tell exactly for what age group this PG-rated exercise is intended. Firstly, the tone and the quality is clearly a rip-off to the other fantasy films that preceded it, such as the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The script is totally clichéd, muddled, confusing, and convoluted, given the fact that the screenwriter of this film who is just a first-time inexperienced screenwriter, has no idea on how to blend well fantasy with other genres such as drama and adventure. Also, this film has major inconsistencies within the plot and are incoherent. There is no excuse for the poorly constructed story, especially considering Disney has been making fantasy films successfully since the 1930s. Another issue that this film have is the cheesy and campy tone that almost draws negative similarities with bad films that have these similar qualities such as Batman & Robin, and 2003 adaptation of The Cat in the Hat.
Here, writer Powell’s approach adds more action sequences and encourages the production design to run wild, crafting colorful characters, surreal spectacle, and fantastical fight scenes. Her tweak that turned Clara into a young engineer is a bit heavy-handed but offers some great onscreen representation for girls interested in mechanics, and more importantly, makes Clara a more pro-active heroine than some old-school Disney princesses. She is no fleeing damsel in distress but instead a bold girl who leaps into action and leads her own troops into battle! Unfortunately, the script’s setups are spoiled in execution. And it’s difficult to know who to blame as the film had director Lasse Hallström for the initial production, but director Joe Johnston was called in for 32 days of re-shoots. To their credits, the finished film isn’t disjointed, but it isn’t fun or thrilling either.
Most people know The Nutcracker from the ballet version, and glad fully they called on Misty Copeland, principal dancer for American Ballet Theater, to play the main doll in a ballet within the film, which was a wise move, but the new Disney live-action version has very little dance and just snippets of Tchaikovsky’s music. Oddly, there is more dancing in the end credits than in the entire film. But other poor decisions mar the film, including dressing Eugenio Derbez and Richard E. Grant in over-the-top costumes and telling them to act as if they just snorted something.
Thankfully, at least visually, the film compensates for its two-dimensional writing. Still, there are some standout moments, as the film is visually delightful, flush with vivid colors. Divinely detailed costumes from Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road) might be worth the price of admission alone. Costumes burst with color, from Sugar Plum’s wispy, cotton candy-colored hair to the blood-red splashes of the military dress that Clara wears in the film’s second half. Plus there are creepy character designs that—while they may be a bit much for younger or more sensitive children—gave a thrilling jolt for their sheer strangeness.
For instance, Hoffman’s seven-headed Mouse King is imagined as a sort of Voltron hive-mind, where hordes of mice construct themselves into a shape-shifting behemoth ready for battle (and nightmares!) And then there’s Mother Ginger’s insane clown posse, clowns with shimmery sinister grins and round bellies that split down the middle allowing them to hide inside each other like Russian nesting dolls.
In the performances department, Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) is brilliant. Soft, angry, tender, pained and regal, Foy is absolutely luminous, both a tomboy and a princess. She speaks through her eyes and really digs into her lines, it’s too bad she is stuck in a film this one. Surprisingly the rest of the cast is quite uneven. Keira Knightley‘s performance is far from being terribly wasted, it’s simply the worst. From the terribly yet laughable and cartoonish voice, monotone, and mannerisms that draws unfavorable comparisons to Helena Bonham Carter‘s whimsical style.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jayden Fowora-Knight, he’s awfully wooden and just because he plays a former nutcracker is no excuse. There’s also Helen Mirren, who portrays the leader of the Fourth Realm with such a swashbuckling style that she’s missed when not on screen. The same goes for Morgan Freeman who appears in a glorified cameo. For some reason they are given far less screen time than a simpering Jack Whitehall and a sneering Omid Djalili as a pair of snooty guards. Even the performances of Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Ellie Bamber, Misty Copeland, Eugenio Derbez and Richard E. Grant are utterly squandered. On the whole, ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is a clunky fantasy which despite the presence of a big budget, known actors and flashy CGI, ends up being undermined by its sluggish story line.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 99 minutes