Director: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Ashleigh Powell
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman
Runtime: 99 Minutes
There is a great deal to say about how the very existence of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms should be every bit the cynical piece of cultural vandalism that it initially appears to be. A fantasy adventure from the Walt Disney corporation scheduled for the dead slot just prior to the holiday season the syphon off early Christmas money, E. T. A. Hoffmann's short story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and Marius Petipa's The Nutcracker, which just so happens to be in public domain.
Positioned as a sequel to the original story in much the same way that Tim Burton’s lamentable Alice in Wonderland was to its original source material, appearing to retrofit a fantasy epic story of sorts into its narrative as the young Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is gifted a locked egg from her deceased mother and sets out in a magical land to retrieve the key. A land that has since fallen into disrepair as Helen Mirren’s Mother Ginger has gone against the whims of the other Realm rulers – led by Keira Knightley as The Sugar Plum Fairy – in an effort to rule over the Four Realms.
As hopelessly generic as that sounds for a narrative devised by accountant holders and mechanical narrative practice and expectation by retreading events, there are enough elements about this rendition that allows it to work and stand on its own merits even if that feels like a form of heresy against the beloved story.
It’s not known exactly what kind of changes were made in the reshoots that ended with Joe Johnston taking a shared directorial credit with original director Lasse Hallström (significant character changes and rewrites seem to have been the priority), but there’s enough here on show to understand why he took on such duties in the first place while waiting for his long-awaited Narnia instalment to take shape.
Although nearly every scene appears to have been shot on a soundstage, the fantastic digital effects work and pronounced design grant so much air and fairy-tale beauty that expands it all. The production design is rather excellent, from the adorned costumes, hair and makeup to the fantastically realised practical environments that scream with theatricality. Not to mention Linus Sandgren’s cinematography favouring wide shots and long, flowing movements through the scenery on show.
The dancing itself is restricted to a single prolonged ballet and orchestral sequence in which the original story is played for Clara in person by actors, and it works rather well with nice design and choreography even if it is the only place in which James Newton Howard’s own rendition of the famous music is allowed to flourish.
There’s a level of madness to the imagery conjured and creatures presented that makes it so oddly arresting at points. With the Mouse King reimagined as a formless creature composed of a thousand smaller rodents, or Mother Ginger sporting a bullwhip to subdue dead-eyed tin soldiers. Hell, pretty much everything about Mother Ginger’s Realm feels like a leftover from a Gilliam-esque nightmare, with large clowns popping in and out of each other like Matryoshka dolls and rolling into battle, and the circus/fairground gone sour aesthetic that follows it.
But the real winners are the performers, and even though esteemed figures such as Richard E. Grant, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren are given little to do they still look fabulously silly even if not relishing the roles that they’re given – even alongside Jack Whitehall and Omid Djalili mincing around. Mackenzie Foy is delightfully engaging as the princess with agency and is proving her strengths with each feature she’s in, and Matthew Macfadyen conveys proper emotion as her grieving, heartbroken father. Jayden Fowora-Knight is perfectly fine as the Nutcracker even if he has zero characterisation.
But Keira Knightley’s casting as The Sugar Plum Fairy is almost reason enough to recommend and validate the entire productions exitance in and of itself. Knightley is an unusual performer who can play straight and plain but every now and then shows her ferocity when handed meatier material, and here she threatens to consume the picture with the kind of high camp performance that only those confident enough in their own assured presence could give.
Initially as a to-good-to-be-true archetypal fairy figure – complete with a helium induced vocal performance and graceful motion – she shifts gear in the third act into something more aggressively entertaining and pantomime as she starts letting lose verbally while upholding that same strange elegance, munching on her candy floss hair with frustration and gurning in every volatile exchange. She’s quite extraordinary to watch.
But then, there’s also the story at play. While it’s all very simplistic, with dialogue so trite and easy to guess – with dramatic beats and twists that can be whiffed a mile away – that doesn’t exactly hinder its pace, which moves briskly with a small-scale geography that cuts out any fat from the journey or runtime. They’re all very basic messages regarding creation, handling grief and finding inner strength, but they’re hit well enough that the young girls who it is targeted for will no doubt find something in the spell that will work on them.
Not to oversell the merits of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but there’s so much more entertainment value to its busy production than might initially appear. It’s no great, and the criticisms to be held against its bastardisation of a beloved story and ballet will ultimately depend on the state of mind of the viewer. But for families – especially little girls – and those looking to lose themselves in a light and obedient fantasy story might find themselves smiling more than expected at the design, the playfulness and Kira Knightley’s camp queen gambit.