The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

A film that misfires as spectacularly as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has no right to be this boring.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Disney don’t really make messes anymore.  Theoretically, all of the major Hollywood studios have hammered out all of the kinks in their creative processes in recent years that could even hint in the direction of an honest to goodness catastrophe spooling from the machine, yet, every now and then, Warner Bros. will still spit out a Collateral Beauty or Universal will somehow let a Book of Henry slip through the cracks.  But, Disney?  They’ve arguably not released anything in the ballpark of such catastrophes since 2014’s Maleficent, a film that reimagined Sleeping Beauty as part Lord of the Rings knock-off, part feminist-retelling of Sleeping Beauty, part barely-subtextual rape-revenge flick for kids, and all parts clashing-bonkers.  Now, this isn’t to say that they haven’t released bad films (the Beauty and the Beast remake) or films that just didn’t work (A Wrinkle in Time), but they’ve all been either watchable or bad in conventional ways that betray the hundreds of hands fussing over them to guarantee that they’re releasable and baseline-competent.  That Alice in Wonderland sequel from two years ago was bad, but it wasn’t interestingly bad in the same way the 2010 Tim Burton one was, for example.

This fact is what makes The Nutcracker and the Four Realms such an anomaly in the Disney machine because it is a genuine bonafide 100% grade-A mess of the first degree.  A Frankenstein-ed clusterfuck of recent successful live-action Disney films that never once comes close to working and often boggles the mind.  You may have heard that this film’s production was an utter mess, originally being directed by excessively-sappy glurge-meister Lasse Hallström for a Christmas 2017 release only to be sent back for massive month-long reshoots under the hand of journeyman Joe Johnston that delayed its release for a full year, but this version of The Nutcracker is a catastrophe in decidedly more fundamental ways than the “troubled production” tag gives off.  Here we have a movie stitched together from the 2010 Alice in Wonderland’s narrative structure, the 2015 Cinderella’s costume designs, Maleficent’s visual palette and tonal confusion, and 2017 Beauty and the Beast’s utter pointlessness.

Our plot follows Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), a precious would-be inventor unappreciated by the rest of her family and reeling from the death of her beloved mother – there’s more of that Beauty and the Beast DNA bubbling up – as Christmas approaches.  On Christmas Eve, Clara receives one last present from her mother, a mysterious egg-shaped container that supposedly contains everything she needs to go forth in life, with a lock she recognises as the work of her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman cashing that cameo cheque for all it’s worth).  At his party that night, Clara receives the key to the box as another present and, in the process, crosses over into a fantasy world of her mother’s creation currently trapped in a war between the three good realms, mainly headed up by The Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), and the one evil realm, a collaboration between The Mouse King and Mother Ginger (Her Meryl Streep-ness who probably shot all her scenes in an afternoon), which Clara ends up conscripted into.

If this Nutcracker is about anything, and all good movies are about something, one would think that it’s about seasonal grief, coming to terms with the death of a loved one and learning to go on in the face of a world that won’t stop for your hurt.  That’s why Clara, much like Alice because this is a more self-cannibalising Disney film than any of their actual live-action remakes, throws herself into the mystery of the box, that’s why she willingly spends her time in flights of fancy even before she stumbles into the magical realms, and it’s the closest thing to a provided reason why the surprise villain of the film is trying to destroy everything – oh, yeah, the actual villain is supposed to be a big twist and you will be SHOCKED that the film expects you to be shocked by it.  But first-timer Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay doesn’t do anything with this conceit outside of the designated conflict points, the big story beats where characters bluntly exposit the theme to each other as motivation but otherwise ignore for the rest of the film’s runtime.

Instead, Powell mostly just marks time.  Lots and lots of time.  Nutcracker does the usual misbegotten 2010s blockbuster thing of not actually having a 2nd Act, where character development and emotional complexities are supposed to go, instead grinding proceedings to a halt for worldbuilding and excess characters and tangents that don’t add anything to the story it’s supposed to be telling.  At no point does this new Nutcracker ever indicate that it has enough material to sufficiently fill up 100 minutes of movie, yet it ponderously drags itself up to that point regardless as Johnston’s usual gee-whiz serial direction gets neutered by Hallström’s self-serious schmaltz to provide the worst of both worlds.  It’s such a dull and empty music box of a movie that makes no usage of its source material, neither the original novella by E. T. A. Hoffmann or the ballet by Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky – the latter instead has musical cues redistributed across James Newton Howard’s otherwise-generic score seemingly at random, and stops the film dead at the halfway mark to ineptly stage an exposition as a grand ballet whose thematic and narrative potential (given the SHOCKING villain twist) remain untouched.

So, since the film otherwise has nothing substantial going on, one is instead drawn more to the weird side-attractions or implications that a better kind of film would have taken full advantage of.  Again, the film stops dead for about five minutes in order to very poorly stage a recreation of the Nutcracker ballet for seemingly no reason other than “it’s The Nutcracker so I guess we need to do some ballet or whatever,” introduced by a deliberate visual call-back to a segment of Fantasia but not the one that featured Tchaikovsky’s music.  The main henchmen of the Ginger Queen are a group of nightmarishly-designed giggling Russian nesting dolls in the form of circus clowns, incongruous with the otherwise sickly-sweet and innocent visual stylings of the entire rest of the movie.  There’s Keira Knightley successfully fusing Anne Hathaway from Alice in Wonderland and Helena Bonham Carter from Almost Any Tim Burton Movie Ever into a turn that’s effectively a camper version of the one Eddie Redmayne notoriously put forward in Jupiter Ascending – and it’s so MUCH that I still, days removed from viewing, can’t decide whether it’s Actually Brilliant or Actually Dreadful.  Or there’s the fact that the frame narrative, where Clara’s sullen and petulant father (super-creepily portrayed by Matthew MacFayden) whinges about how the daughters who look resoundingly like their recently-deceased mother won’t dance with him at the party, is really about the dad wanting to fuck his children.  Like, he’s SO ADAMANT about getting a dance from them and he dresses them up in his wife’s dresses!  At least it’s in keeping with the tradition of non-sanitised fairy tales, where this kind of thing crops up in-text all the time?

Digressions and touches such as these should cause Nutcracker to join similarly bewildering messes like Collateral Beauty and The Book of Henry as perversely entertaining trainwrecks that are enjoyable in spite of themselves.  But these are fringe elements, momentary aberrations that ping one’s radar before the status quo of joyless boredom settles back in.  Every weird fault is cancelled out by the kind of generic boring fault that’s a mainstay of slogs such as this.  All of the characters are flat, barely-sketched archetypes, most of all Clara herself who has the YA protagonist disease of not actually having any faults besides token moments of self-doubt.  Powell’s screenplay is a slave to hack storytelling, going for the most cliché of dialogues at every turn and literalising every single narrative beat so blatantly and unashamedly, including what’s meant to be the big emotional climax of the film, that I was whiplashed between being thoroughly insulted and laughing hysterically.  And whilst Knightley is at least memorably MUCH, Foy delivers all of her lines like a Secondary School drama star with the self-belief and ego to bully their way into the headline role but none of the talent to back it up, and Jayden Fowora-Knight (who plays The Nutcracker and the fact that I’m just now referencing him should indicate how important he is to the film) appears to have gotten lost on his way to an audition for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – I haven’t seen a lead performance in a major studio tentpole this flat since Sam Worthington was being hired.

At no point whilst watching The Nutcracker and the Four Realms did the movie answer the most pressing question of all, “why?”  Why did this movie need to be made?  Why did this story need to be told?  Who is this for?  Rather than the usual case in glorious messes, where the answer ends up conflicted and confused, Nutcracker never so much as at hints having one to begin with.  A film like Status Update I can at least see some kind of intent in, an intended audience (teenagers) or an intended story and theme (Fairly Odd Parents but for high school), whose execution is wilfully bizarre and/or wrong-headed enough to make the resultant film fascinating to witness.  Nutcracker has neither of those things.  It doesn’t know who it’s for, it doesn’t know what its story is supposed to be, and those bizarre and/or wrong-headed executions come off less as merry pranksters using their film’s indecisiveness as an excuse to cram in whatever nonsense filled their brains that morning and more like the edges that the Disney hands were unable to smooth out because doing so would lead to there being no releasable movie.  I can’t even say that it’s the result of individual departments working from separate pages because such a statement infers that there was an intended goal to work on in the first place.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the result of a mega-studio feeling obligated to release a big expensive film with brand recognition of questionable value because Q4 profits needed shoring up.  So, they front hundreds of millions of dollars, pull together big-named directors and recognisable stars, construct elaborate sets and the fanciest of (actually crappy-looking) CGI special effects, block off a release date years in advance… and never actually come up with a movie to fill that slot with.  All that money, all that talent, all that time, devoted to realising absolutely nothing.  If this is what a Disney mess looks like, I’ll happily take those baseline-competent mediocrities back in a heartbeat.

Callum Petch needs a little time out from him and you.

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