It is late in the evening. Rain comes down outside an office on the Disney lot as a group of Disney executives contemplate what their next big blockbuster should be. What public domain fantasy-IP can they turn into a motion picture next? They’ve already done so many, there can’t possibly be any left….and then somebody remembers that The Nutcracker Suite exists, why not make a movie based on that famous piece of ballet music? Disney’s adapted that material before with a Mickey Mouse short and kind of sort of in a Fantasia 2000 segment, surely a live-action adaptation is only the next logical step for the studio! Those Disney executives likely thought they had a surefire family movie hit on their hands, but what they got is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a movie that excels most when it’s just being as odd and campy as possible.
The lead character of this new take on the Nutcracker tale is Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), a young girl who recently lost her mother and is also a crafty inventory. The former detail is incredibly important, the latter character trait ends up never factoring into the proceedings. On the first Christmas Eve after her mother passed away, Clara Stahlbaum, while on the hunt for a key that will open a music box her mom left her, stumbles into a magical fantasy world separated into four realms only two of which both Clara and the viewer get to visit for a prolonged period of time. The Sugar Plum Fairy (Kiera Knightley) informs Clara that Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) looks to destroy this world, which Clara’s mother actually created.
This means we get a convoluted backstory for how exactly this magical realm came to be involving Clara’s mom using a gigantic microscope-looking creation to shoot a laser into toys to bring them to life. Such backstory is one of the more bizarre elements of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and is indicative of the weirdness that marks the best moments of the film. Watching Clara having to fight off a monster made up of hundreds of adorable CGI mice is never something I thought I’d see in a movie adaptation of The Nutcracker Suite but that’s just what happens here, as is Mother Ginger occupying a realm that looks like an abandoned theme park populated by old-timey clowns guaranteed to give children nightmares.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms plays best when it’s some spec writer delivering his ideas for an expansive Nutcracker-based mythology whilst on an LSD trip, but that kind of peculiarness only makes up a third of the movie at most. The rest of it is tragically generic particularly the third act which, aside from the sight of Helen Mirren using a bullwhip to fight off evil nutcrackers, is basically packaged entirely out of recycled materials. A derivative fight between two CGI armies (rendered in shockingly poor CGI) is here, an army of nefarious and obedient nutcrackers comes straight out of The Santa Clause 2 and a pivotal emotional moment for Clara’s personal journey is plagiarized directly from the first Kung Fu Panda.
There’s also an abrupt attempt in this third act to make two key characters previously shrouded in mystery representations of differing ways of coping with the loss of a loved one which isn’t an awful idea but emerges in such an abrupt fashion as to render any attempt to garner some feels from the viewer a lost cause. Instead of getting swept up in the protagonists journey coming to a close, you’ll likely be instead distracted by how obvious it is that Kiera Knightley and Helen Mirren, even when engaging in back-and-forth dialogue exclusively between themselves, are clearly never in the same room together, they’re laughably always shown in separate shots talking to somebody off-screen whatever the circumstance like they’re Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in the most recent Fast & Furious movie.
There are all kinds of clumsy editing choices like that scattered throughout The Nutcracker and the Four Realms that seem to be the result of the editor trying to make due with the heaps of even more awkward footage they’ve been handed. Truthfully, even the most masterful editing in the world couldn’t make the numerous dud jokes The Nutcracker and the Four Realms tries to implement for the sake of levity work. All those painfully unfunny jokes should have been eschewed in favor of more unintentional moments of hilarity stemming from how this movie tries to turn the various key elements of prior Nutcracker adaptations into an expansive mythos. Did I mention that a core part of this motion picture’s story revolves around a gigantic laser-shooting microscope doo-hickey?
Not since 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has a Disney blockbuster tried so hard to turn intentionally simple source material into complex lore to such meager results. This means a whole heap of actors like Kiera Knightley (using Michelle Williams I Feel Pretty voice for her portrayal of The Sugarplum Fairy) or Mackenzie Foy (who does solid work in a poorly written lead role) are left to wander around lavishly detailed but thoroughly derivative sets looking for something to do in between moments of memorable abnormality. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is neither naughty nor nice, it’s just a generic fantasy family movie that at least has the decency to be short and to have a handful of truly exceptional instances of just going nuts. That’s surely not the result all those Disney executives who cooked this up would likely have wanted, but there are worse results one can get when making a Nutcracker family movie…