Let’s get this out of the way: The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is probably going to be nominated for at least one Oscar. And costume designer Jenny Beavan and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas will richly deserve the nods their fanciful Rococo creations will more than likely earn them a couple of months from now. And that’s about all anyone will remember about this latest in Disney’s line of milquetoast live-action fairy tales, another beautiful yet oddly flavorless confection that treats movie magic as a primarily visual concern.
Unlike last year’s Beauty And The Beast or 2015's Cinderella, there is no animated Disney version of The Nutcracker for this new film to compare itself to. And although the film shares a setup with the ballet version of The Nutcracker, and borrows pieces of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score, the story diverges so significantly that comparing the two is largely pointless. Aside from the Christmas setting, the main thing the two versions share is a heroine: Clara (Mackenzie Foy), here the sort of shallowly headstrong girl that’s become boilerplate in kids’ movies over the past couple of decades.
We open with Clara dazzling her little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) with a Rube-Goldberg device she’s built in the family attic, as apt a metaphor for the fantasy-industrial complex that created this film as any. They’re interrupted by their father Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen), who informs them that they’ll have to be on their best behavior at that evening’s Christmas ball, held at the stately home of their godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). Soon thereafter, the film introduces what’s supposed to be a resonant emotional core: Clara’s mother recently died, and this is the family’s first Christmas without her. But in a film as calculated as this one, the theme is more likely to inspire a knowing nod than tears. You know those Disney movies and their dead moms!
That’s not to say that The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is offensive in any way. In fact, it’s the opposite. Every aspect of of the movie feels as if it’s been determined by algorithm, workshopped and test-marketed into a state of pleasant, fleeting dullness. Even its visible commitment to diverse casting and seemingly earnest advocacy of STEM education (or, at least, a 19th-century steampunk version of same) feels like a savvy marketing strategy, an attempt to attract as many types of potential ticket buyers as possible.
The one spark of life in the film comes from Keira Knightley, who brings a welcome daffiness to the character of Sugar Plum, ruler of one of the “four realms” of the title. Knightley’s character has to do a lot of narrative heavy lifting, yet, to her credit, her performance is still light as cotton candy. The rest of the realms are ruled by Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), king of flowers; Shiver (Richard E. Grant), king of snowflakes; and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), queen of amusements. Of those three, Mirren is the only one whose performance isn’t completely overshadowed by her hair and makeup. Instead, she’s chewed up and spit out by the film’s generic fantasy-adventure plot, which includes elements of the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles Of Narnia, and Alice In Wonderland and involves a war between the four realms that only Clara can solve.
Aside from the costumes and practical sets—both of which are really quite stunning, especially compared to the adequate but muddled CGI—the only real reason to see The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is for its ballet sequences. Those feature Misty Copeland, the first black woman to be promoted to the role of principal dancer at the American Ballet Company and a fine role model for young people who are interested in dance. Watching Copeland pirouette across the screen, you rather wish you were just watching her perform a filmed version of the ballet. At least she’s an original.