The Nutcracker and the Four Realms review: like a clockwork musical toy shaken to within an inch of its life
Dir: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston. Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Macfadyen, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Eugenio Derbez, Misty Copeland, Omid Djalil, Jack Whitehall. PG cert, 99 mins
The dusting of Disney glucose all over The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is as wall-to-wall as ever. Loosely derived from the ballet, the film is a frosted seasonal entertainment that must at one point have been earmarked as the Mouse House’s major Christmas release, with such star names as Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and top-billed Keira Knightley dangling from it like baubles.
Why, then, does it come traipsing out at the fag-end of half term, with modest promotional hoopla and tail between its legs? The clues are all over the finished film, not least an unusual twin director credit for Lasse Hallström (who started production) and Joe Johnston (who took over for a month of reshoots). While no particular disgrace to either of them, it has the feel of a clockwork musical toy that’s been tinkered with and shaken to life over and over – it cranks out a tune, all right, but the feeling of labour behind it dampens the magic.
Mackenzie Foy, best-known for playing young Murph in Interstellar, stars as Clara, a young girl being raised in a kind of chocolate-boxy Yuletide wonderland by her sad-eyed father (Matthew Macfadyen), following the demure death of his wife, also at Christmas. Before we disappear into overt fantasy, even the “real world” milieu of the movie is a snow-globe vision of permanent advent, with strains of Tchaikovsky never far away.
At a Christmas ball, while Clara’s siblings receive their gifts, she’s transported into a private kingdom in which her late mother was queen, finding herself revered as a princess and treated to a tour of the land. The very first part of this, as she wends her way through a white forest of ice and has a key stolen, has got something: the sets have a pleasing tangibility, and the world-building gets your hopes up.
When Clara meets the Nutcracker Soldier, a sentry guarding the bridge to the Oz-like citadel, their chemistry sparks things, too: he’s played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, a young British newcomer of diffident but considerable charm, who’s the best thing in the movie.
Alas, the more this Nutcracker faces up to the increasingly pressing problem of picking a story, the more it tenses up and falls back on default Alice-in-Wonderland-isms, like so many Disney productions (Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, and so on) since that film cleaned up at the box office.
The colours get garish and clashy – one particular trip through candy-land with that realm’s duke (a mugging Eugenio Derbez) made me wish I’d packed Nurofen – and the VFX department step in with ever less inspiration to spruce up the wallpaper.
Mirren, as a flame-haired circus tyrant called Mother Ginger, is sparingly used, and so is Morgan Freeman, who cameos in the outer sections as the avuncular Drosselmeyer, an eyepatch-wearing inventor/godfather figure with little to do but rumble out his usual nuggets of random sagacity, and dispatch an equally irrelevant owl to watch over Clara for the duration. Both of these parts feel crimped and rejigged, like panto cameos mainly inserted to look good on the poster.
Knightley’s Sugarplum Fairy has a much bigger role, bouncing in at giggly Marilyn Monroe pitch and spiking the energy levels with bits of silliness: at one point she breaks off a piece of her own violet candy-floss hair and eats it. Anyone resistant to her at full flounce and pout should brace themselves, though the character has some tricks up her sleeve which help her get away with these surface mannerisms. She’s overdoing it in every way, but fun to watch.
As it merrily frisks along, such is the general confusion of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms that even totting up the four realms is likely to stump at least half the audience. There’s a lot of scurrying woodland business with a giant creature made entirely of mice, and a nested set of Humpty Dumpties, one inside the next, which jump out in a creepy circus interlude: blink and you might miss Miranda Hart’s face morphed onto one of them.
What’s the point of a realm, though, if we don’t spend any time in it? Before long, tin soldiers are imposing martial law, and Clara must come to the whole kingdom’s rescue, plot logic adding up to a jumble of will-this-do gambits which the film makes up as it goes along.
It’s colourfully bemusing, not dislikeable, and then it’s over, with an end-credits ballet performance, before you can really figure out what to make of it all. Somehow, you doubt this was the Nutcracker anyone first envisaged, so much as the final draft they were just about able to cobble together, twirling by in a nervous, forgettable blur.