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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Movie Review

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) movie poster The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Theatrical Release: November 2, 2018 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston / Writers: Ashleigh Powell (screen story & screenplay); E.T.A. Hoffmann (short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King); Marius Petipa, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker ballet)

Cast: Keira Knightley (Sugar Plum), Mackenzie Foy (Clara Stahlbaum), Eugenio Derbez (Hawthorne), Matthew McFadyen (Mr. Stahlbaum), Richard E. Grant (Shiver), Misty Copeland (Ballerina Princess), Helen Mirren (Mother Ginger), Morgan Freeman (Godfather Drosselmeyer), Jayden Fowora-Knight (Philip the Nutcracker), Miranda Hart (Dew Drop Fairy), Jack Whitehall (Harlequin), Ellie Bamber (Louise Stahlbaum), Prince (Jingles the Horse), Omid Djalili (Cavalier), Tom Sweet (Fritz Stahlbaum)


Disney hasn't made a bad animated movie in a while. In-house, you have to go back a full ten years to even have a conversation about Bolt. Pixar's worst movies are still middling cinema and comparable to above-average efforts from other animation studios. There's a lot of consistent quality on the live-action side too. When a Star Wars movie is deemed "lesser",
like I considered Rogue One and others charged The Last Jedi or Solo, we're still talking about a fairly good piece of mainstream entertainment. Marvel's weakest efforts haven't dipped below fine or forgettable. Disneynature documentaries and inspirational true sports dramas don't produce a strong negative reaction in anyone. And even if we generally agree that the live-action remakes are inferior to the original animated classics, they are still made with love, respect, and polish.

That leaves us with that dwindling class of standalone live-action Disney movies. These have slowed to a crawl and perhaps because it is the one domain where Disney can falter on a regular basis. Remember The Odd Life of Timothy Green? Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible...? There's a great chance you never saw them, or maybe you saw them and forgot. The best current example of such a misfire is A Wrinkle in Time, which came out in March and made $100 million domestically with near-universal dislike from critics and moviegoers. If it feels like Disney is presently incapable of doing wrong, remember Wrinkle.

To its ranks, we can now add The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Though it does credit Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the 19th century Russians whose ballet is easily as closely associated with the word "Nutcracker" as nuts themselves, this film is not as much of an adaptation of that as it is of the 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Germany's E.T.A. Hoffmann. If you're among those who have been clamoring for a definitive filming of that 200-year-old text, you're lying, but I doubt you'll be very pleased by this.

You know a movie hasn't done its job when it's more interesting to write about behind-the-scenes drama than the final product. Though it didn't send shockwaves through the online film community the way that Lucasfilm and Pixar's "creative differences" job replacements have, Nutcracker endured one of the more challenging productions experienced on a big-budget enterprise. This being a Disney film aimed at young audiences, we probably won't hear specifics anytime soon, but the end credits hint at turmoil. They credit two veteran filmmakers -- Sweden's Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and America's Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger, Jumanji) -- as directors, with nary an ampersand of collaboration between them. General rule A.2 of the Directors Guild of America Basic Agreement of 2014 states, "With few exceptions, only one Director may be assigned to a motion picture at any given time."

This is one of those rare exceptions. Hallström directed the film in its fall 2016 through January 2017 shoot from a script by complete newcomer Ashleigh Powell. Then eleven months later, Johnston was brought in to direct a month of reshoots reportedly written by Academy Award-winning writer Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Visitor, Up). Everybody receives credit except McCarthy (whose name still appears on the poster and Wikipedia), but this is one they all may regret having on their résumés.

In Disney's "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms", Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) follows a gold rope to the fantastical Christmas Tree Forest.

We open in London on Christmas Eve, where three children are celebrating their first Christmas without their Mom. Creepy, bearded Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen) is trying to keep spirits up and the family is hosting their annual holiday party at their mansion. Of the three kids, only one really matters to us: middle child Clara (Mackenzie Foy), who is improbably good at gadgets as she demonstrates by swiftly repairing a wind-up musical toy that has stumped her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), a one-eyed inventor.

For Christmas, Clara has received an egg-shaped music box from her recently deceased mother, but it is locked and can only be opened with the right key. During gift time at the party, Clara follows a thin gold rope to what should be her present. Instead, she ends up in an enchanted snowy world. No, it's not Narnia, though you might wish it was. It's the Christmas Tree Forest, one of the four fantastical worlds where Clara's mother evidently reigned as a queen on the downlow.

Clara meets a humorless nutcracker named Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), who I guess is our young leading man. She also meets the excitable Flower Realm king Hawthorne (Mexican icon Eugenio Derbez of Instructions Not Included), the icy Snow Realm king Shiver (Richard E. Grant, in what is hopefully what is his final thankless minor role after his memorable, Oscars-bound turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and the eccentric Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who is guarded by acrobatic clowns of sorts.

As important as any of these figures is the Sugar Plum Fairy (top-billed Keira Knightley), who talks like a child and has the aesthetic of 2011 Katy Perry. She seems really sweet, until she doesn't. There's a little bit of ballet at one point and the end credits delve deeper into that with dance performance by Misty Copeland (who is third-billed atop that busy one-sheet) and others. But Tchaikovsky's iconic melodies only feature in passing. The Mouse King is a weird, looming figure made up of actual mouses, one of whom drives the plot with his early key theft.

Clara (Mackenzie Foy) meets three of the four realm monarchs in Shiver (Richard E. Grant), Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez).

The specifics here hardly seem to matter. I'll admit I struggled to stay awake, the first time that has happened in nineteen theatrical screenings I had this month. But what I saw was very underwhelming and generic, something designed to cash in on the holiday season without ever making a convincing argument for its very existence. Certain aspects will remind you of other movies,
from The Santa Clause's sequels to Rise of the Guardians, none of which are the kind of classics a major motion picture should aspire to. Nutcracker is mercifully brisk, starting its end credits scroll shortly after the 90-minute mark, but you'll welcome its brevity, unmoved by the ho-hum storytelling and uncharmed by the obnoxious characters.

There is something positive to be said about the movie and that is that it looks nice. From the opening scene's swooping tour of Victorian London at Christmas to the colorful realms imaginatively brought to life, Nutcracker does brim with visual ingenuity. Production design, costumes, and the digital embellishment of both are all aesthetically pleasing and enforce this as Cinema with a capital C. As does the stature of the cast, even if Freeman phones it in and Mirren and Knightley ham it up. Wikipedia states with unusual precision a production budget of $132.9 million, which is substantial. This isn't quite on the order of a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel or John Carter, but it's a lot closer to those than the likes of non-Disney live-action family films Goosebumps and The House with a Clock in Its Walls and as costly as this year's Wrinkle.

At that price, Nutcracker should not just look really nice, it should be a transcendent experience for all ages. But it just never even comes close to being that. I found myself less invested in the routine bits of self-discovery it puts Clara, her mother's "greatest creation" (sorry, siblings), through than spotting superficial Something Wicked This Way Come-like gaps in continuity, which I noticed without even knowing of the troubled production coming in.

Neither Hallström nor Johnston has a body of work that makes you think they could lift this material to great heights. Hallström has typically made arthouse fare (he was a Miramax fixture at the turn of the millennium), while Johnston's most enjoyable work is Jumanji, a movie whose corniness is crucial to its nostalgic appeal. Having graduated from art direction and visual effects on the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark, his debut as director -- Honey, I Shrunk the Kids -- was a huge hit for Disney...nearly thirty years ago. Since then, he's helmed one of the least loved, least exciting Marvel Cinematic Universe entries and Jurassic Park III, one of the weakest chapters in that lucrative dinosaur saga. You can understand why Disney would tap him to try to sort this out; he's very much a for-hire, workmanlike filmmaker and one who is employed with curious irregularity (this is his first theatrical credit since Captain seven years ago). But you also understand why it didn't all come together into one glorious new holiday classic.

At least Disney will only have to endure a single week of bad press on this, which launches the Christmas movie season on November's first weekend. By next week, the story will be Illumination's new animated Dr. Seuss' The Grinch and this will be but a distant memory by the time Ralph Breaks the Internet presumably extends Disney's animated winning streak at Thanksgiving.

Related Reviews:
A Wrinkle in TimeThe Santa Clause: 3-Movie CollectionRise of the GuardiansBabes in ToylandA Christmas Carol (2009)
Directed by Lasse Hallström: The Hundred-Foot JourneyThe HoaxDear JohnMy Life as a DogAn Unfinished LifeCasanova
Directed by Joe Johnston: The RocketeerCaptain America: The First Avenger
Mackenzie Foy: Interstellar | Keira Knightley: Collateral BeautyBegin AgainJack Ryan: Shadow RecruitKing Arthur
Helen Mirren: Woman in GoldThe QueenTrumboEye in the Sky | Morgan Freeman: Going in StyleLast VegasNow You See Me

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Reviewed October 31, 2018.

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