What an odd little production The Nutcracker and the Four Realms turned out to be. An exercise in fascination as to what a film should and shouldn’t be, the shared-directing credit by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston is a tell-tale sign as to why this ambitious fantasy-actioner feels so disjointed; the director of such critically acclaimed dramas like Chocolat and The Cider House Rules working alongside the helmer behind Jurassic Park III and Captain America: The First Avenger? Not the most obvious collaboration.
What I’m sure was meant to be a fantastical adaptation of Marius Petipa’s classic ballet descends quickly into standard action/fantasy fare with the final product feeling like a clone of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, or more correctly it’s underwhelming sequel, and it’s all the more disappointing given that the opening moments of the film promise something quite whimsical.
As to how we go from a lush James Newton Howard score and extended ballet sequences featuring praised ballerina Misty Copeland to Helen Mirren cracking a whip at life-size tin soldiers and a camp Keira Knightley channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe…well, it all starts with young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, handling herself suitably), a mildly defiant pre-teen who’s still reeling from the loss of her mother. Gifted a mysterious egg on Christmas Eve, one that is locked with no key in sight, Clara seeks guidance from Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, earning that credit with the most minute of appearances), her godfather, and apparent craftsman, who ultimately sends her on a quest to a hidden dimension known as the Four Realms.
I say hidden, but given that Clara finds this Narnia-like portal by simply following a piece of string strung up in the household, there really isn’t anything stopping anyone else from finding it too, but that would require implementing logic and that’s not what this film is about. Anyway, the Four Realms is a highly colourful (i’m talking visually splendid!) world that was once ruled by her mother, and Clara’s presence sends a wave of hope through the kingdom following the word that their former queen has perished.
Though the initial stages of Clara’s venture into the Four Realms kingdom is filled to the brim with expected Disney magic and the most wonderfully over-the-top costume creations, it isn’t long before it veers wildly out-of-control when the three realm rulers living in harmony – Richard E. Grant’s Shiver, regent of the Land of the Snowflakes, Eugenio Derbez’s Hawthorne, regent of the Land of Flowers, and Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy, regent of the Land of the Sweets – inform Clara of the war waging between them and Mother Ginger (Mirren, clearly enjoying herself amongst the silliness), regent of the Land of Amusements.
At a scant 99 minutes The Nutcracker and the Four Realms surprises in that it opts not to indulge in a lengthier running time, despite it obviously needing a lot more fleshing out in regards to its story. All the pieces are put together in a manner that’s far from surprising, but it can’t help but feel like Ashleigh Powell’s script has been heavily compromised in favour of kid-friendly action sequences that are far from exciting; Mirren looks great cracking a whip but that’s about it.
With opening moments that could potentially bore younger viewers seeking visual action, and an all-too-familiar finale that’s most likely too silly for the older crowd, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms could find a small niche of an audience likely to respond positively to its incoherently-assembled fantasy mentality. It’s not an all-out calamity though as it’s a positively gorgeous film to look at for the most part and Foy makes for a fine Disney-approved lead, but it really is such a fractured product that it’s more disappointing than disaster.