‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is not as fun as it looks
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston
Written by: Ashleigh Powell, based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella
Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” – Santa Claus at the nearest shopping mall, big-box store sales, holiday music, and television broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “A Christmas Story” (1983).
These are sure things that one can expect at Christmastime each year, and add ballet productions of “The Nutcracker” to this exclusive holiday list. In fact, Phoenix’s Symphony Hall will host “The Nutcracker” performances beginning on Dec. 13.
Get your tickets!
On Nov. 2, one can also purchase movie tickets to “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”, a new adventure based on the concepts of E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Visually, this holiday movie-present splashes its actors, actresses and dozens of extras with dazzling, whimsical costumes and drops these thespians into alchemy-driven fantasy worlds, but the film is like a beautifully-wrapped gift that contains three pairs of white socks.
To be frank, it’s a bit forgettable.
Clara (Mackenzie Foy), however, is not forgetting her mother at Christmastime. This teenager – who is a part-time inventor, as evidenced by her Rube Goldberg contraption within the film’s first few minutes - is in deep mourning, because her mom recently passed away. Her brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and father (Matthew Macfadyen) share her sorrow, but they attempt to pick up their spirits and embrace the holidays at a nearby party. It is there, when Clara visits her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) and asks for a key to open an ornamental egg, a gift from her mother from beyond the grave. He offers more than that and sends Clara on a journey – ala “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) – to The Four Realms, which begins in the Christmas Tree Forest.
Directors Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993), “The Cider House Rules” (1999)) and Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)) chaperon Clara on an Alice-like or Dorothy-like adventure, where she encounters a nutcracker soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and The Sugar Plum Fairy or Sugar Plum for short (Keira Knightley). There is no Mouse King exactly, but hundreds of mice stack themselves together to construct a giant replica that moves like a wavy rodent abomination, and various other Four Realms characters hope that Clara – who again, is an inventor - can save their world.
Apparently, the missing key is the key to everything, as the narrative plods along with a series of happy accidents. Clara pushes for self-discovery, bumps into disturbing clowns who look like Pennywise’s first cousins and listens to Sugar Plum’s complaints about a war. The Four Realms – with its flowery, sugary and snowy landscapes – does not really seem like a battle-weary place, so it’s difficult to feel sympathy for its residents.
Is this world really in danger? This particular critic wasn’t stressed out.
Meanwhile, Clara and Phillip loiter in a palace that best resembles Saint Basil’s Cathedral, confront someone called Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) and our heroine slips down a rabbit hole, err, a mouse hole, but these steps are just cold mechanics that lack any sense of joy.
A few song and dance numbers would have livened things up and could have turned this dull excursion into a fun sing-along like “Labyrinth” (1986). No such luck. This isn’t a musical. Other than a three-minute ballet sequence with Misty Copeland and some random, scant moments of the nostalgic chords, the classic music is mostly absent.
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is not a terrible movie, but its presentation and execution feel misguided. The written and spoken tones are as wooden as a nutcracker soldier and do not come close to matching the picture’s visual eccentricities, with only one exception. Knightley – far and away – is the most compelling character in the movie. Her hypnotic take on Sugar Plum has a look of Marie Antoinette caught in a cotton candy bin coupled with a high-pitched voice that approaches a mash-up of Glinda the Good Witch and the prostitute who sang “Duke of Earl” to Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) in “The Man with Two Brains” (1983).
Sure, it’s a random comparison, but Knightley is that memorable. The rest of the film? Well, it should receive Oscar considerations for Costume and Production Designs, but overall, the annual ballet is a better holiday choice. How much are tickets?
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.