THE STORY – Young Clara needs a magical, one-of-a-kind key to unlock a box that contains a priceless gift. A golden thread leads her to the coveted key, but it soon disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. In that world, she meets a soldier named Phillip, a group of mice and the regents who preside over three realms. Clara and Phillip must now enter a fourth realm to retrieve the key and restore harmony to the unstable land.
THE CAST – Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren & Morgan Freeman
THE TEAM – Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston (Directors) & Ashleigh Powell (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is the world’s most performed ballet, and very likely, it’s the most popular. Staged in countless communities every holiday season, it is whimsical enough to be enjoyed by children, macabre enough to be enjoyed by adults, and rousing enough to be enjoyed by all. It’s also a slim story, easily adapted to something short enough to not push the limits of the notoriously short attention span of most children.
So what to make, then, of Disney’s new adaptation, “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms,” which expands the tale to include political intrigue and military strategy, and somehow feels bloated even at 93 minutes? It is an odd beast, one which never finds its footing as surely as Tchaikovsky’s ballet does, a film that keeps throwing production design at you to obscure the fact that nearly everything else is a bit of a mess.
The story starts out much the same: Young Clara (Mackenzie Foy), her younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), and her elder sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) are attending a Christmas party where the toy inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), Clara’s godfather, gives wonderful presents to all the children. But in this version, Clara’s mother (Anna Madeley) has recently died, and she and her father do not know how to go on without her, or even how to talk about it to each other. Clara is also something of an engineering genius herself, and when her father (Matthew Macfadyen) gives her a locked box as a Christmas gift from her mother, she knows only Drosselmeyer can help her open it. Sure enough, his present to her is that key, but her path to get it takes her to another world, where it is promptly stolen by a mouse. After meeting a soldier guarding a bridge to “the fourth realm” (Jayden Fowora-Knight), she learns that her mother was Queen of this world and that she is a princess. She meets Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), the leaders of three realms, but is told that Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), ruler of the fourth realm, has gone rogue and is working to overthrow the kingdom. So Clara and the soldier must journey to the fourth realm to get the stolen key in the hopes that it will unlock not only Clara’s box but an invention her mother was working on before she died.
That’s a whole lot of plot for a children’s film, and it only gets crazier and more convoluted from there. The whole thing reminded me of no less than Sam Raimi’s “Oz The Great And Powerful,” another piece of family-oriented CGI spectacle that barely escaped from under its own heavily-designed weight. There’s one key difference here, though, and that is Mackenzie Foy’s Clara. Instantly likable, Foy gets us on Clara’s side even when she is being overly surly to her clearly-still-grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen at his most glamorously morose). And Clara, who gets through her ordeal by almost exclusively relying on her smarts and ingenuity, is a great role model for the little girls who are clearly the film’s target audience. But for adults, unfortunately, there’s not much else there. Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay substitutes cliché for character everywhere it can, and the bizarre third-act turn into political allegory feels forced and overly simplistic.
And yet, there’s still plenty to like here. Guy Hendrix Dyas’s production design stays just on the right side of gaudy, never quite tipping into the ugly garishness that marred Disney’s live-action “Beauty And The Beast” last year. The steampunky mechanical elements, in particular, are a lot of fun. Likewise, Jenny Beavan’s costumes are dazzling – even the overdone ones end up being fun in a campy way as opposed to oppressively ornate. There is also a mid-film ballet that features American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland and is so gorgeous you’ll wish it was longer. And then there is Keira Knightley, having an absolute blast as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Pitching her voice to an impossibly high chirpy coo, Knightley gives such a highly stylized performance that it calls to mind no less than Helena Bonham Carter at her weirdest. It is wholly surprising in the best possible way.
Still and all, “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms” remains very much a children’s film. Even the most difficult tasks are overcome in very little time, important character moments fly by in a flash, and everything is wrapped up in a perfectly tidy little bow. Children will very likely love this, and parents should be glad that the film holds up smarts and being good to others as the traits that make a good ruler. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else liking this very much, except maybe Keira Knightley fans for one of her most unique performances.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The production and costume design are eye-popping in the best way. It has a heroine worth rooting for, plus a go-for-broke Keira Knightley performance, and Misty Copeland’s dancing. It’s a very good children’s film.
THE BAD – It’s really obviously meant for children and only children.
THE OSCARS – None