Starring: Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar), Eugenio Derbez (Overboard), Matthew Macfayden (Pride & Prejudice), Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight), Jayden Fowara-Knight (Ready Player One)
Directors: Lasse Halstrom (Chocolat) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Writer: Ashleigh Powell
Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes
Release Date: 2 November (US, UK)
The Nutcracker is probably the most ubiquitous ballet in the world; even if you’ve never seen it, you know the gist of the story and a lot of the music. In spite of this, there has been no definitive film adaptation. The story has been adapted multiple times as Christmas specials for kids’ TV shows, and there was also that infamous 2010 film version that was one of the biggest box office flops of all time (which, coincidentally enough, also starred Richard E. Grant), but otherwise nothing has been produced. Until now that is, and of course Disney is responsible; you’d think they’d have jumped on this years ago. However, considering the final result, perhaps there is a reason this property has rarely reached the big screen.
The plot plays incredibly fast and loose with the source material, barely recognisable from the original bar some character names and incidental story details. Disney has pretty much taken the exact same method here as they used on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, retrofitting a mostly plotless bedtime fable into a fantasy adventure flick, but in the sloppiest and most cliché-ridden way conceivable. It tries to posture that it is a subversive reimagining, but it just apes every other subversive reimagining and claims itself original. The story is incredibly simplistic with no real effort into giving it any sense of scale, every plot development is excruciatingly foreshadowed, and the rushed pacing and short running time means nothing has any time to sink in. The film had a troubled production, as evidenced by the two separately credited directors (a very rare occurrence in Hollywood films), but the final film ends up feels like the product of no directors. Instead, it feels like a cut cobbled together by executives, throwing together whatever disparate pieces of film they had to fashion something they could technically market as a finished product.
Every character in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is so archetypical, even their supposed quirks are hackneyed. Mackenzie Foy tries as Clara but she’s stuck with a stock protagonist role who “just needs to believe in herself”, and the only thing the film can come up with to make her stand out is to say, “Yeah, but…she understands physics and technology and junk. Totally not generic!” Newcomer Jayden Fowara-Knight takes on the titular Nutcracker, but he is even more dull; there’s not even an attempt to make him interesting. Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman are wasted as Mother Ginger and Drosselmeyer respectively; they’re important players in the ballet, but here they practically reduced to chess pieces. Eugenio Derbez and Richard E. Grant are effectively useless, whilst Jack Whitehall and Omid Djalili serve as comic relief soldiers the film has no idea what to do with. But in the midst of all this banality is a shining star of spectacular awfulness, and that is Keira Knightley as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Affecting a high-pitched breathy voice and the personality of a creepy killer doll, Knightley delivers the camp to sickeningly sweet levels in a bonkers performance that has to be seen to be believed. I seriously couldn’t keep a straight face whenever she was onscreen, and I’d say the film is almost worth watching just so you can witness it. It is the new standard for WTF insane performances by otherwise serious actors.
On a visual level, the film is comparable to Disney’s recent live-action output, but despite similar budgets this one somehow ends up looking incredibly cheap at points. The production design is the textbook example of grimdark fantasy; everything just looks like a fairy tale template that’s been made to look “badass” in the most elementary way. The make-up is stagey and is never convincing (Mirren’s “face rips” are obviously just drawn on), and the visual effects include some bafflingly amateurish green screen compositing. The only interesting idea the film has is how it incorporates actual ballet into the film, mainly through a performance sequence used to explain the back-story. However, this doesn’t work for three reasons. One: as pretty as it is, it’s a very roundabout way to get that information across when you could just show or tell it to us traditionally. Two: the sequence conveys little to no pertinent information the audience hadn’t already gathered. And three: instead of actually allowing the dancers to convey the story through their movement (you know, the thing ballet is supposed to do), Knightley keeps interrupting to EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHAT EVERYTHING MEANS! I’m not kidding. There’s trying to bring the arts to the masses, and then there’s just dumbing it down.
Behind its sugary bombastic coating, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a hollow and baffling experience; it’s like Jupiter Ascending for kids. It feels like a template for an epic fantasy family film that they’ve just shoved Nutcracker references into the empty slots and called it a day. The only reason to even consider watching this thing is to guffaw at Keira Knightley’s performance, but that certainly isn’t worth the price of admission. It’s just a colossal waste of time for both the audience and the filmmakers, but even if this thing flops hard Disney probably won’t notice. They’re making so much money at this point from all the pies they have fingers in, they could release five equivalent turkeys a year and still end up making a profit.
FINAL VERDICT: 3/10