Well, Halloween has been and gone, so I guess that means in cinema terms that we have begun our slow and slippery decent in to the world of Christmas movies! If you’re anything like me, then you will have your set staple of festive films that reappear in heavy rotation year after year, but that doesn’t stop the studios from trying to give us new ones to add to the mix for Christmases to come. Disney’s attempt at presenting a new family favourite comes this year in the form of The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, a contemporary nod to a seasonal classic.
A combination retelling of E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker And The Mouse King and Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker, the film follows young Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) as she unknowingly ventures in to a magical world in search of a key to open a trinket left by her recently passed mother. Once transported to these magical realms, Clara meets a host of characters including living nutcracker soldier Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), and she finds not only the world to be in a state of civil war, but also that she has a much bigger connection to the realms than being just a surprise visitor.
The first thing to say about The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is that it is a visual feast. It’s not the best CGI I have ever seen, and it isn’t imagery that hasn’t been associated with this long told story before, but there is something very pleasing about the aesthetic of the film, both in picturesque Christmas time London and in the vivid imagination of the four different realms. Sadly, the content of the narrative never quite manages to match up with its delightful visuals. The story is incredibly bare bones, with the ‘child travels to mysterious lands to learn things’ trope being done a million times before and a million times better too. There is just something about the way the plot goes through the motions that feels incredibly hollow, the film moves from one interestingly designed and beautifully envisioned set piece to another without ever really making an emotional connection with its audience.
One enjoyable element is the film’s use and theming of ballet both in the ‘real world’ scenes and the ‘realm’ scenes, with American dancer Misty Copeland performing some wonderful and emotive routines, make sure to stay during the credits too. It’s nice to see this grand scale Disney adventure paying homage to the story’s balletic roots, it’s just a shame that the ‘story within the story’ telling of the history of the realms that Copeland performs feels more magical and affecting than the majority of the ‘real’ action. The score adapted from The Nutcracker Suite is also a nice touch.
As for the cast, Disney have done that thing of pumping a middling film full of stars in order to try to lift its quality, and whilst it is nice to see the big names having silly fun, they can’t save it as much as their talents might promise. As Clara, Mackenzie Foy is an enjoyable young lead. The role doesn’t demand much more than the right aesthetic and a whimsical charm, but she certainly has both and I have no complaints.
As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Keira Knightley is clearly having an absolute blast. It seems weird to say for a film that I don’t think is particularly successful, but she probably gives the most varied and ambitious performance of her career to date! She is cute at times and then super sassy as the film progresses, almost to the point where it feels like the character belongs in a different picture, but Knightley adds some energy and interest to the second half of the narrative when things otherwise feel super formulaic and generic.
Something the film definitely gets points for is its diverse casting, with performers like Misty Copeland, Morgan Freeman, Jayden Fowora-Knight and even Omid Djalili in a small but fun role adding some positive contemporary cultural variety to an old story that has been historically dominated by totally white characters.
Helen Mirren brings some star quality and majesty to her role as Mother Ginger, but she’s criminally underused. It almost feels like a lot of Mirren’s work has been left on the cutting room floor, but the film clocks in around a breezy 90 minutes and honestly I’m thankful that the filmmakers have shown some restraint, uncharacteristic for these modern age sprawling adventures.
Overall, The Nutcracker And The Four Realms falls in to the category of beautiful failure for me. It catches the eye in fun ways and isn’t anywhere near arduous to sit through, but its aesthetic pleasantness isn’t enough to forgive a rather emotionally hollow narrative. Potentially worth it solely to see Keira Knightley on a delightful mad one, but certainly not a festive classic to add to your annual marathon.