'The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is Disney’s hollow holiday confection

Disney puts a convoluted new spin on a Christmas classic.

This review contains spoilers for “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”

In terms of movies, Disney is a bit of a mixed bag these days. When the company isn’t busy pumping out the latest Marvel or “Star Wars” joint that’s landed under its massive conglomerate canopy, it seems caught between the old and the new. We’ve gotten great original stories with “Moana” and “Coco,” but just as much, if not more, of Disney’s focus seems to be on how they can revamp their classic films to appeal to the hearts and wallets of their lifelong fans.

They’re in an interesting situation, as they have to draw in moviegoers while also having the loyal fanbase and constant release calendar that only an iconic studio can have. So, what then, is their first big holiday release of 2018 going to be? As it turns out, Disney is going with a remake of a remake: “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” a new take on the E.T.A. Hoffman story and Tchaikovsky ballet.

In this iteration, Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is a budding mechanical genius who’s mourning the recent loss of her mother, Marie (Anna Madeley). On Christmas Eve, she receives a late gift from her: a locked egg-shaped contraption. At a holiday shindig that evening, Clara receives the key for the egg from Drosselmeyer — a steampunk Morgan Freeman who happens to be her godfather. Forget fantasy worlds with way too much computer generated imagery, hiring Morgan Freeman to film a five-minute cameo in an eye patch is the real way to show that you’ve got big studio bucks!

This leads her to a portal into a magical realm that her mother built as a girl, complete with four different realms modeled around classic “Nutcracker” dances —”The Land of Sweets,” “The Land of Snowflakes,” “The Land of Flowers” and an unnamed fourth realm. They’re each run by regents in Marie’s absence, with Sugar Plum (a saccharine, cotton candy-haired Keira Knightley) in the lead. With Clara there to succeed her mother as queen, everyone in the realms is psyched at the prospect of finally defeating Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), a former regent who’s determined to take full control.

At this point, you might be wondering why, if this is Clara’s Disney heroine story, the film’s title isn’t Clara and the Four Realms. Is there even a nutcracker in this story, or was that name just a ploy to draw in parents whose kids saw a performance of “The Nutcracker” one time? The answer is a little bit of both. There is a nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight), but he prefers the name Phillip, and because Marie transformed toys into the characters that make up the realms, he’s not technically a nutcracker at all. So why, if there is a titular character in the movie, hasn’t he been mentioned yet? Phillip, it turns out, is given little more to do than escort Clara to and from each empty pastel wonderland into which she wanders.

The nutcracker is arguably the most relatable character that we, as the audience, encounter throughout the film. “The Nutcracker” turns out to be a colorfully decorated holiday feature whose cast and story struggle to support its veneer. Mackenzie Foy has matured a great deal on and offscreen since her CGI “Twilight” days, but her acting throughout “Nutcracker” is more reminiscent of the wooden toys that Clara finds throughout the realms than the classic heroine herself. Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren fully dedicate themselves to the absurdist costumes and power ploys of their characters, which often end up squandering any of “The Nutcracker” ballet’s strange charms on worldbuilding with little payoff.

Directors Lasse Hallström (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “A Dog’s Purpose”) and Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger” and “October Sky”) inject nearly every scene with over-complicated jargon that still manages to feel completely divorced from the busy CGI worlds that make up most of the film’s runtime. There’s a lazily executed story about grief — Clara’s grief over Marie is reflected in Mother Ginger and Sugar Plum’s conflicts since her mother has been away — but even Marie, like Clara’s fleeting engineering knowledge, feels like part of an underwritten hero’s journey mandate.

Perhaps one of the only scenes that successfully escapes Disney’s empty blockbuster gimmicks is a ballet scene in which dancer Misty Copeland performs an expository number set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score. Devoid of animated mouse hordes and rushed magical subplots, it’s a lovely and visually stunning reminder of the reliable holiday tradition that “The Nutcracker” is for so many viewers. Maybe before a round of edits and studio feedback, this new take on the story allowed itself to rely on the nonsensical warmth of the original — here, though, its struggle between old and new is bound to push away its young audience in the process.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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