Watching a visually spectacular but virtually soulless new family movie like “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” it’s tempting to wonder if such eye-popping dreck has any hope of sticking with impressionable young audiences. Is there any chance that the kids of today might be nostalgic for this hyper-saturated nonsense tomorrow?
It’s a sincere question about a film that often seems like it was only made or Disney shareholders. Is this really that much worse than the stuff that millennials were raised on, and read about on Buzzfeed lists, and flock to see at semi-ironic repertory screenings? In a world where “Hocus Pocus” has become something of a genuine holiday classic, is it actually possible to gauge how good the studio offerings of 2018 might look 20 years from now? Judging by “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” the answer to both of those queries is a resounding “yes.”
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It’s never a good sign when the best scene in a ludicrously expensive, blockbuster reimagining of “The Nutcracker” is… the part where the movie pauses for a simple dance sequence, complete with practical sets (with visible wheels!) and a show-stopping cameo from ballerina Misty Copeland. And yet, here we have an uninspired screensaver of a movie that fails to offer children interesting characters to care about/see themselves in, a coherent plot to follow, or even the faintest trace of humanity under its $130 million husk of gorgeous sets and garish special effects. It’s a chore to sit through now, and in all likelihood it will be a chore to sit through always.
For a movie with so much stuff to look at, the only things you really see during “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” are all of the recent movies that it’s flagrantly trying to recycle. If the premise suggests a less ambitious riff on “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the candied aesthetic reeks of a less hostile and hideous take on Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Of course, when it comes to any adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” — or even a movie that’s merely “suggested by” it — Christmas will always be the pervasive inspiration of them all.
Screenwriters Tom McCarthy and Ashleigh Powell keep the holiday spirit to a minimum, but it’s no surprise that the story begins on Christmas Eve. In a festive mansion that seems as though it were built from the remnants of the house in “Fanny & Alexander,” a young girl named Clara (“Interstellar” breakout Mackenzie Foy) hides away in the attic, tinkering on her latest Rube Goldberg machine. Despite Foy’s best efforts, it’s clear immediately that Clara is yet another of the standard-issue YA protagonists that can suck the life right out of a movie like this: She’s brilliant (a trait that she inherited from her late mother), she’s boring, and she’s bereft of a parent.
She’s also not alone in her sadness. Her father (Matthew Macfadyen) is likewise paralyzed with grief, though he tends to express it through some vaguely incestuous moments straight out of “Vertigo.” Loss is a messy business, and so there’s no sense judging the guy for the look on his face when Clara shows up in his dead wife’s dress, but perhaps it would have helped to give the character another facet or motivation beyond really wanting to dance with his daughter at the evening’s big soiree. Clara also siblings, but they don’t matter.
Anyway, our heroine attends a massive ball thrown by her fairy godfather (a steampunk Morgan Freeman, wearing an eyepatch and sporting an owl on his shoulder), and — in search of a key that might open a mechanical egg her mother left behind — wanders into a mystical realm. One of the four realms of legend, in fact! What’s that? You don’t know about the realms? Well, there are four of them, three of which seem like Wonka-esque paradises: The Land of Snowflakes, the Land of Flowers, and the Land of Sweets, the last of which is presided over by a human cavity known as the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley, fun enough in a performance that suggests Helena Bonham Carter being mummified in pink cotton candy). But what about the fourth realm, you ask? Well, that’s the Land of Nightmare-Inducing Clowns.
Okay, technically it may be called something else, but the gist of it is that it’s a barren wasteland that’s at war with the other realms, and a place that will remain a threat to the other lands until the sinister Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, because why not) is vanquished once and for all. That tasks falls to Clara, who’s accompanied by a life-sized Nutcracker soldier (appropriately stiff newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight, stuck under a leaden script). Together, they’ll have to fight a giant mouse that’s made up of thousands of tiny mice, and dispatch Mother Ginger’s phalanx of menacing jesters; if this movie has any chance of sticking with young viewers, it’s only because these bouncing terrors might scar them for life.
In the broadest of strokes, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is the story of a girl who’s trying to fight past her grief. “Christmas comes whether we like it or not,” Clara’s father tells her, and she can either internalize her mother’s strength, or surrender to the anger that’s welled up in her mother’s absence. The various women who Clara meets during her magical adventure are ostensibly manifestations of the girl’s best and worst instincts.
At this point, you might start to wonder if Disney has recalibrated the Nutcracker story into some kind of meditation on death; despite his diminishing returns, “My Life as a Dog” director Lasse Hallström is definitely the kind of guy a studio might hire to steer a lavish blockbuster through tricky emotional waters. And perhaps that’s what the Mouse House originally had in mind. But — in a very unusual move — Hallström shares directing credit with Joe Johnston, who presided over 32 days of reshoots in Hallström’s absence. Reshoots are a part of the filmmaking process, and reporting on them tends to be wildly overblown, but 32 days is long enough to shoot a whole second movie!
While it’s difficult to identify who directed what, it’s even more difficult to shake the feeling that Johnston was hired to sand off the edges, and make this thing more internationally palatable as a product. The compromised result is suspended between a childlike sense of discovery and a corporate sense of duty — at no point does it feel like the story and the graphics are talking to each other, or even in the same language (quoth the Nutcracker: “I don’t speak rodent”). The bland smorgasbord of special effects aren’t rooted in any real pathos, and the inner strength that Clara finds is too underwritten to hold any weight. Things just sort of happen, one after the other, the whole manic enterprise so indistinct that inflections of Tchaikovsky’s music are needed to remind you what you’re even watching.
It’s hard to imagine kids remembering “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” by the time they get home, let alone still thinking about it several decades later. Then again, it’s amazing how quickly a movie’s legacy can shift into focus. Only a few months have passed since Disney’s previous attempt at mining similar territory, but make it a few minutes into their latest effort and you might already find yourself nostalgic for “A Wrinkle in Time.” Despite its flaws, at least that film had genuine purpose and some real personality. Clara might be able to save the four realms, but none of them have much of a future.
Disney will release “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” in theaters on Friday, November 2.