The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is all extravagance, zero heart
Here’s your hard truth of the day: Disney thinks kids are stupid.
The shareholders behind this modern iteration of the House of Mouse are excellent showmen, not because their brain trusts are coming up with anything worthy of the Disney name, but because they have convinced us all that the company is at the height of their creative powers. Their procurement of outside properties, namely the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, has led to runaway success for the studio both critically and financially. But the reality is that Disney merely owns these properties and reaps the rewards; they have very little to do with the films themselves outside of financing and distribution, instead handing over creative duties to the production houses in charge of each respective brand. The system has admittedly worked wonders: Pixar has long been the industry leader in animation, the MCU is arguably the biggest franchise in movie history, and Star Wars is the most interesting it’s been in years. The key to the success of each of these cinematic brands is that they appreciate the imagination and thoughtfulness of adults and tots alike. Daddy Disney on the other hand, seems puzzled by the idea of smart entertainment. The majority of their in-house films have a different strategy: sit down, shut up, and enjoy the pretty lights, dummy!
There’s perhaps no example of this philosophy more egregious than The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s latest live action adaptation which takes on the world of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the renowned ballet based upon it by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The film follows Clara (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar), a kid genius given a mysterious locked egg as a Christmas present from her late mother. Desperate to open it, she seeks the help of her godfather, the inventor Drosselmeyer (a badly miscast Morgan Freeman, Se7en), who under the guise of a Christmas Eve gift hunt sends her on journey into the Four Realms, a fantasy world that her mother brought to life and ruled over. There she meets the titular Nutcracker, Captain Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), as well the leaders of the realms: ruler of the Land of Sweets, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley, Atonement), the ruler of the Land of Snowflakes, Shiver (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and leader of the Land of Flowers, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez, Instructions Not Included). Upon meeting Clara and grieving over her mother for about five seconds, they tell her of the war between their realms and the fourth realm, the Land of Amusements, which fell into ruin when its leader Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, The Queen) tried to betray her fellow leaders and take over the other realms. Realizing the key she needs to open her egg (and also conveniently save the world!) is with Mother Ginger, Clara embarks on a quest to retrieve it.
It’s quickly apparent this is a wild riff on the source material, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. If there’s an answer to the woes of the Disney live action formula, it’s injecting some freshness into the stories they insist on re-telling. The problem is that Disney’s idea of breathing new life into classics is turning them into very expensive, extravagant effects showpieces with little to no care given to capturing the soul of what made these tales household names in the first place. The visual effects and production design, clearly the focus of the film, are appropriately breathtaking considering the gonzo budget behind this. Unfortunately they serve less as testaments to the power of design and more as shrouds for the fact there’s nothing else of substance to be found in this loud, emotionless affair. Even the effects sometimes misfire, especially in instances where the results are borderline horrifying. A giant mouse composed of smaller mice and a rolling gang of clowns that put Pennywise to shame are more likely to leave lasting scars on children than fond memories.
Despite all the glitz and glamour, the film’s best scene is ironically an exposition heavy ballet sequence featuring a cameo from legendary ballerina Misty Copeland. For a brief moment you can catch a glimpse of genuine Disney magic as Copeland twirls through a divine collection of practical sets, whisking us away into fantasy without the impedance of CGI and succeeding purely on the merits of the talent of the scene’s central star and classic studio craftsmanship. Simultaneously, the sequence reminds you of the condescension of Disney’s lack of faith in its audience, having Knightley shrilly interrupt Copeland’s performance with explanation instead of letting the ballerina’s work speak for itself. Disney can’t even trust kids to understand a straightforward ballet, so the scene ends quickly and we’re back to the lights show.
Speaking of Knightley, this is a performance so deeply, deeply ill-advised that her agent might need to start checking the classifieds in the near future. Equipped with a pipsqueak accent guaranteed to make your skin crawl, Knightley interprets the Sugar Plum Fairy as an early career Helena Bonham Carter zonked out on opioids. It’s a performance that you know is the result of heavy-handed studio guidance, as Knightley is normally an actor too good to turn in this kind of amateur work. Blame it on the script for not only making Knightley insufferable but also for making her the star of show. Sure, Foy is the lead, but her and Fowora-Knight are given so little to do outside of propelling the plot forward and delivering lines ripped from Hobby Lobby kitchen decor that Knightley is the only person doing anything interesting here, as godawful as that work may be. Mirren, Freeman, and virtually any other actor of note in this thing are present for what feels like mere seconds, here only to provide hokey life lessons and collect the subsequent paycheck.
All of this is apparently good enough for Disney, who hope kids will be sufficiently wowed by all the pretty colors to sit still for a couple of hours and then beg their tortured parents to purchase the digital copy in a few months. It’s shameful that Disney would insult the intelligence of their primary market. Maybe they can get away with mindless dreck in their television programming, designed purely to distract kids for a few hours, but the effect can’t hold over in a theater. Children recognize the importance and magic of cinema perhaps better than any other demographic. For them, going to the movies is an event, a chance to enter another world where they interact with characters and ideas that will stick with them into adulthood. Disney doesn’t seem to understand that kids gobble up Pixar movies, dress up as Captain America, or act out their Star Wars fantasies simply because they were thrilled by how those movies looked. They fell in love with how they felt, how their characters imparted deeper truths, discovered profound connections, and found meaning in their adventures. Kids may not be old enough to put that feeling into words, but it’s crystal clear in their eyes when they watch something truly special. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is not that movie. Its attempts at emotion are manufactured as an afterthought to its pricey amusements, not in any effort to truly recognize the value of telling children a story that stays with them. It would much rather hold them over for a few minutes. until the next lights show comes on.