Bah Humbug to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

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From the moment The Nutcracker and the Four Realms faded in, I became restless. When it faded out, I felt no different. The movie is an uninvolving bore.

Based on both the short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, and Christmas staple, The Nutcracker, this reinterpretation focuses on Clara (a strong, attention grabbing Mackenzie Foy), the middle of three siblings growing up in London of the late 1800s. It’s Christmas Eve, but having recently lost her mother, Clara doesn’t feel the holiday spirit. Her father (a severely bored Matthew Macfadyen), reveals that their mother, before she passed, left presents for each of them. Clara’s gift is a Fabergé egg along with a note stating everything she needs is inside. But the egg’s locked; the key to open it not included.

That night, Clara and her family visit her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman in nothing more than a glorified cameo) who’s hosting his annual Christmas party. There Drosselmeyer presents Clara with a golden string that trails off into a darkened hallway. As she follows it, she’s whisked away to a magical realm where the very key she’s looking for resides. But as soon as she finds it, it’s stolen by a mouse and taken to the realm of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, her Mirrenness completely wasted) who has nefarious plans for it. With the help of a loyal Nutcracker come to life, Captain Philip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight), and fairy Sugar Plum (Keira Knightly, with her cotton candy hair, deliciously chomping her dialogue like a deranged Mae West), Clara has to penetrate Ginger’s realm, retrieve the key, and bring peace to the fantasy land.

…or something.

Look, I know none of that makes a lick of sense. Seeing the movie won’t clarify any of it either. True, neither the short story nor the ballet the movie’s based on are particularly logical, either, but the script, by Ashleigh Powell, never tries to make any sense out of the source material. Instead it’s just a tired hodgepodge of fantasy riffs and cliché rearranged like puzzle pieces that never fall into a satisfying whole.

The whole production looks expensive, which is not the same as impressive. Opening with a long take following an owl as it flies us through late 1800s London, “The Nutcracker” intends to “wow.” But as it unfolded, the scene reminded me of “The Polar Express,” whose CGI visuals haven’t exactly aged gracefully.

The rest of the movie looks professional enough. Mother Ginger’s forest is appropriately foggy and tree cragged, and a magical castle, where most of the movie takes place, looks appropriately castle-ish, (though I wonder which production designer thought it was a good idea to slather so much of it, and Drosselmeyer’s estate before it, in a garish Flash Gordon red that would look more appropriate in a horror movie than a family fantasy film?). But none of it pops off the screen, none of it tickles the imagination bone, and, in a weirdly reductive move, even though the movie clearly mention four realms in its title, we’re really only taken to two of them, back and forth, over and over. The filmmakers owe me two more realms.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is uninspired.

The movie’s tagline had me expecting worse: “In 2018, the legend you know has a dark side.” Dark and gritty reimaginings are de rigueur. It’s an exhausting trend that fell into self-parody long ago, and a “Nutcracker” promising just that is the stuff of satire. At least, “Four Realms,” isn’t as tasteless as that tag suggests. It’s not particularly dour; although the visuals are gloomy, the movie doesn’t try to scare the crap out of children (which, as a Disney movie, does have historical precedence).

And as it shambled along inoffensively until it sighed into its conclusion, I did appreciate the film’s diversity in casting, the incorporation of ballet (Misty Copeland, the famed dancer, shows up in an extended sequence that cleverly doubles as a backstory information dump), and composer James Newton Howard’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s music. But Jayden Fowora-Knight, while enthusiastic, is wooden (I know he’s supposed to be a nutcracker, but literally?), and while the score is lush and inviting, it plays incessantly. It’s always there, lushing in the background. After a while, you just want it to stop.

And frankly, it wasn’t long until I just wanted the movie to stop. True, it’s inoffensive and there’s the offhand chance it might introduce kids to ballet. But, for a Christmas movie, it’s oddly bereft of seasonal cheer. At the end of the day, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is just a bland, life-less bore.

This article was filed by Pavel Klein, author of the film-centric blog Write Pavel Write.

Pavel Klein

Pavel Klein is a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle and author of the film-centric blog