The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston
It’s not often that Disney just let’s something slide under the radar like this. Every Marvel movie and Star Wars episode gets a HUGE marketing push (even the comparatively small Solo got more coverage than a lot of other movies), their animated films are almost always guaranteed to be at the top of the box office, even something as out there as A Wrinkle In Time was pretty omnipresent prior to its release. With this film though it’s like they want to sneak it out as fast as possible which, given what we saw in the trailers, is probably a good call and even more reason for critics like me to make sure it gets it’s turn in the spotlight! We may love Disney for a lot of things, but they’ve had their share of horrible mistakes and I’m not in a lenient mood this year! Does this retelling of the classic tale turn out to be a Disney Blunder on the scale of Treasure Planet, or did they simply not know what to do with the greatness they had in front of them? Let’s find out!!
Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is the daughter of a wealthy English family who is not having a very good Christmas, mostly due to her mother (Anna Madeley) having died the previous year, and her father (Matthew Macfadyen) is insisting they at least put up appearances and go the Christmas ball as tradition dictates. Oh and she has a brother and sister (Tom Sweet and Ellie Bamber), but who cares about them. ANYWAY, Clara goes to the party in a rather dour mood and sees her kindly godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) who makes clockwork novelties and presumably lost one of his eyes when a cuckoo clock got too close, but more importantly he seems to be the only one who understands Clara as she too has an affinity for mechanical devices. However, there’s one that still eludes her which is a locked mechanical egg that she got as the last gift from her mother, and when Drosselmeyer sees it it’s clear that SOMETHING must be done! Okay, see if you can follow me on this. First, he sets up an elaborate gift giving system for the kids where very long strings are tied to a pole in the courtyard with each child’s name on one of the strings, and they have to follow said string to the gift. Clara’s string apparently winds all through the house which leads to a… magic door I guess that takes her to the fantasy world of THE FOUR REALMS that’s populated by nutcrackers, fairies, and mice. Well it’s certainly a good thing that none of the other kids mistook her string for theirs, though even if I was dutifully following a string with my name on it, I’d AT LEAST start to question something when it starts snowing and we’re no longer in the middle of the city, but I guess I’m not young enough to get the whimsy of being out in the cold without a jacket. The string by the way leads to a key which could be the one needed to unlock Clara’s mechanical egg thingy, but alas it is taken by a mouse that runs off into THE FOURTH REALM which is a place of fog, dead trees, and clowns. After meeting up with a nutcracker solider (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and making a valiant effort to chase after the mouse who took her key, she eventually retreats back to the big castle just outside THE FOURTH REALM where all the rich people are partying, the guardians of the GOOD realms are residing (Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, and Richard E. Grant), and Clara’s mom is apparently still crowned as queen despite being dead for over a year which we soon learn is even LONGER in Fantasy World Time! So with that, Clara is given the royal treatment but has to take on great responsibility in her mother’s absence to… I guess eradicate THE FOURTH REALM which is so obviously evil while also getting that key back and finally uncovering whatever secrets her mother left in that egg! Will Clara be able to overcome whatever challenges face her once she goes back into THE FOURTH REALM? What are the rulers of the other realms planning to do once Clara fulfils her duty, and will she be able to return to her old life? Is it just me, or did almost NONE of that have to do with The Nutcracker!?
Who would have guessed that I’d get two movies back to back (this and Bohemian Rhapsody) where my initial response is… wait, really? True they’re ridiculous and baffling for ENTIRELY different reasons, but it’s always funny when a coincidence like this occurs, though it’s only funny in HINDSIGHT because I STILL had to sit through this unforgivably trite piece of cinematic fluff. I still can’t believe that it was Disney of all companies behind it because their usually meticulous style is completely absent here in favor of some of the sloppiest writing and aggressive editing I’ve seen in quite some time from a kid’s movie. We’ve already got Narnia which was itself a watered down version of Lord of the Rings; what the heck is THE NUTCRACKER hoping to bring to the table here besides being a swift kick in the balls for anyone who paid money to see it!?
Alright, let’s pump the brakes for a bit and try to say something nice here, because despite how bad this movie is there ARE some genuinely positive things about it. Okay “things” as in more than one might be a bit optimistic, but I can name SOMETHING this movie has, and that’s pageantry. Whenever it’s not trying to be a fantasy action film which frankly is MAYBE only half of the film, the movie has a nice look to it. It’s over the top and flamboyant to be sure, but I honestly didn’t mind it and it went along with the moments of the film that either indirectly referenced ballet or were just straight up scenes of ballet. In fact, my favorite moment in the entire movie (aside from the end credits, but we’ll get to THAT soon enough) is the ballet scene which is easily the most well-constructed moment of the movie. First, the performance itself is quite excellent with Misty Copeland as the lead performer, and the effects are so good that I’m not even sure if any of it was CG. It was at least made to LOOK practical (pieces coming out of the floor, moving sets, etc.) which only made it that much more convincing and enjoyable to watch. Nothing else in the movie was as impressive as this woman and her fellow performers doing their craft on stage. Not the various action scenes, the sweeping green screen vistas, or whatever passes for a story in here. Speaking of which, the other great thing is that it gets across a decent amount of story through the performance which we desperately needed more of because of how coy this movie is with details (again, something we’ll get back to soon enough), so it seems like the one thing everyone on set could agree upon and put their all into was this one moment smack dab in the middle of the movie, and frankly they should have gone with it for the rest of the movie rather than what came before and CERTAINLY what came after.
I’m VERY far from an expert when it comes to the original story or the ballet that spun off from it, but even with there being a solider and a mouse king, this material just doesn’t seem suited for BIG BUDGET FANTASY GRANDEUR; something Disney should have picked up on when the LAST big Nutcracker movie was a spectacular box office bomb. Sure, the mice aren’t dressed as Nazis in this film, but at its core it’s very much the same thing; what can we extrapolate from the original work and how can we Frankenstein it into a blockbuster? The amount of lore they add to this story is ludicrous and frankly feels completely unnecessary with the idea of the four realms feeling particularly extraneous. We don’t even get to SEE three out of the four realms for more than say fifteen seconds with pretty much all the action taking place in the EVIL realm of amusements (i.e. Mordor) and the castle that I GUESS sits in the middle of all of them (i.e. Minas Tirith) and is the primary line of defense if the EVIL realm gets too big for its britches. Why did one of the realms turn evil? I don’t know. Why was Clara’s mother the queen, even though she didn’t actually LIVE there? No idea! Imagine if we got Tron Legacy without having the original Tron movie as this movie basically feels like a much later sequel and frankly could have USED the subtitle Legacy considering how much of this revolves around Clara trying to live up to her mother which would carry some weight if we had ANY IDEA who she was! As I said earlier, the ballet scene at least gives us a bit of context for things (Clara’s mom came to town, everyone loved her, and the mice are jerks) but frankly we need SO much more exposition just to get a grasp on what’s going on here or even what’s at stake. Am I ACTUALLY supposed to care about the citizens of the realms when we never get to see them and the few we DO get to see are either bumbling fools or aristocratic fops? There’s just nothing here to grasp onto which makes everything feel so perfunctory and the scenes of action and danger end up being completely hollow. I can’t really tell if there were any HUGE problems with the production (there were reshoots done by Joe Johnston but reshoots aren’t uncommon for movies), but it feels like a salvage job through and through. Nothing really fits together properly, but you can see where all the money had been blown on meaningless set pieces that are interspersed throughout. It feels both rushed and too long at merely an hour and a half because so much stuff is happening but all of the context and meaning behind it either never got filmed or was hacked off in the editing room to get the runtime as lean as possible.
To a certain extent however, this IS kind of enjoyable as a SO BAD ITS GOOD movie; especially in the third act where they throw everything against the wall in a brazen attempt to up the stakes and make you care about anything that’s going on. They do some bait and switch with the material and while certain twists go COMPLETELY unexplained (so much of this movie), I didn’t really mind them as much because at least it showed a BIT of creativity in not being so slavish to the source material. I mean look, this thing is a tedious slog for the most part which makes it not one I’d really recommend hate watching or watching just to laugh at it, but certain stuff throughout the movie like Helen Mirren brandishing a whip or our character realizing halfway through the movie that her mother already TOLD her about this place will give you at least a chuckle here and there at the movie’s expense which is frankly about as much as this movie deserves considering how slapdash and stale the rest of it is.
With Bohemian Rhapsody, I got angry for a number of reasons. Queen is a band that deserves THE BEST biopic, not just a copy pasted generic one, Freddie Mercury’s story as well as the AIDS epidemic shouldn’t be forced to fit into RISE AND FALL storyline, but with this movie? Why would I POSSIBLY be angry at it? Okay, it was pretty tedious to sit through and it’s never that much fun sitting through a bad movie, but I was never looking forward to this at any point and it’s hardly a story that’ll be “tainted” by another bad adaptation. Where the crappy Queen movie feels like it’ll do some legitimate damage, this movie is gonna come and go with barely a thought and probably a lot more money than it deserves just because of the Disney branding. Don’t see it in theaters, don’t see it when it gets a home release, don’t even THINK about this movie once you finish reading this! I’m sure you’ve got WAY better things to think about than trying to figure out who thought this was a good idea!
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