Review: Disney’s ‘The Nutcracker And The Four Realms’ Is More Functional Than Fantastical

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a sweet holiday confection, easy to consume but lacking anything of substance. A loose amalgamation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s 19th-century story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Alexandre Dumas’ adapted vision and the classic Tchaikovsky ballet that has become a perennial Christmas favorite, the film comes across often like a poor man’s Chronicles of Narnia. Its gorgeous production design, colorful characters, and dazzling costumes are a visual treat, but little about the story proves to be nearly as much of a gift.

A tame family-friendly adventure set in 1879 London, the story centers on Clara (Mackenzie Foy), the grieving middle child who along with her father (Matthew Macfadyen) are mourning the mother Marie’s recent death. It’s Christmas time and still unaccustomed to her absence, the season has lost all of its joy. The father robotically gives the children presents left behind by Marie, with Clara’s being a golden Faberge egg with a special keyhole, but no key. A clever, inventive girl just like her mother, Clara sets out to find the key and open her gift, with the promise of answers to all of her life’s problems. Turning to her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, looking like Nick Fury’s distant ancestor), she finds herself whisked away to the magical Four Realms.

The Four Realms turns out to be as creepy as Hoffman’s original story, and if you got a thing about rodents it’ll be the stuff of nightmares. Mice are everywhere; they’re thieving little buggers and can merge into a giant creature made of thousands of little mice formed together like Voltron. It’s disgusting. Clara soon make friends with a nutcracker soldier, Captain Philip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight), who along with saving her hide introduces her to the rulers of three realms, including the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley). But the fourth ruler, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), has turned evil and seeks to destroy the other realms. Only Clara can stop her, and in the process hopefully find a way back home.

Disney should be commended for the diversity in casting. While Foy and Knightley aren’t exactly prime examples, casting the charming Fowora-Knight as the nutcracker was a bold move and he turns out to be one of the film’s most welcome characters. Sure, his complete lack of autonomy is annoying but he’s both a nutcracker and a soldier, given to taking orders…of which Clara issues many.  In a clever We also get a command ballet performance by Misty Copeland, the country’s first African-American prima ballerina, in a clever walkthrough of the Four Realms’ backstory.  As ruler of the Flower Realm, Disney cast Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez, with his gift for funny faces and odd voices coming in handy.

From a character standpoint this might be Disney’s boldest break from tradition, outside of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. That only makes the predictable plot all the more disappointing. There simply isn’t much meat on this story’s bones. Clara will be very familiar to fans of other Disney heroines; headstrong, fed up with her domestic life, and that’s about it. Foy is solid in the role, her Clara is sweet and confident, but also a little naïve. Knightley has the most fun as the Sugar Plum Fairy, although I suspect her ditzy performance, and this interpretation of the character, will be an acquired taste. When screenwriter Ashleigh Powell tries to tackle larger themes, such as grief and loss, the story simply buckles underneath the weight. It works far better as a straight arrow adventure yarn, and that’s also when we get to see the most of Mirren, wielding a whip and leaping into battle against an army of tin soldiers.

The rare film approved by the DGA to have two unrelated directors given credit, Lasse Hallstrom (who left early due to scheduling) and Joe Johnston couldn’t be more different stylistically. Johnston is a special effects dynamo while Hallstrom is known for quieter, all-ages fare; but to look at The Nutcracker and the Four Realms you can hardly see where one ends and the other begins.

Disney’s latest live-action fairy tale may lack the spark of originality, but let’s be honest that the goal here was to create a Christmas mainstay that can be popped into the Bluray player while the family opens gifts. On that level, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is entertaining enough to do the trick, and it will for a very long time to come.

Rating: 3 out of 5