Due to the nebulous nature of copyright law, certain properties remain in the public domain and are thus subject to the whims of anyone who wishes to adapt it to a certain media for zero cost. In the world of cinema, this means that producers are more apt to return to those stories with less risk and more chances of making a quick buck. That’s why we get so many Dracula movies. Such is the case with The Nutcracker, which doesn’t necessarily have a definitive filmic version to cast a shadow over any subsequent adaptation. So if you’re watching the promotional videos for Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feeling like they’ve just made one of those, at least too soon for there to be a redux so quickly, you’re not crazy. Most notably in 2010 came The Nutcracker in 3D, and you’ll notice the italics in that title extend to the 3D part and wasn’t just a typo on my part. At the same time, you’ll be forgiven if you didn’t notice, as it hardly made its way into the States and was universally panned. Even though it had such names attached as Elle Fanning, John Turturro and Nathan Lane, the latter of which portraying Albert Einstein. Yeah, that last part pretty much sums it up. In fact, this was the one instance of a studio trying to become the definitive version, as they shelled out a whopping $90 million to make it, and only getting a measly $16 million back. That was about enough to scare producers away from touching the property for a while, but here comes Disney with their unlimited Disney money not really caring if it’s a hit or not, it having both Ralph Breaks the Internet and Mary Poppins Returns backing it up as the holiday season progresses. And it’s not proving to be a hit, with critics or audiences, as it’s probably destined to be similarly forgotten and again updated by another studio, though probably with a smaller price-tag. And I wish I could attest to the contrary, but it’s simply, thoroughly meh. While probably not as offensive to the senses as the one in 3D, it never entirely strikes a chord with either imagination or wit.
In The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, teenager Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) looks to the holidays still mourning the loss of her mother. On Christmas night, at a party hosted by her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) at his mansion, she follows a series of strings leading her to her Christmas gift, only to find it taking her to a wintry forest, one full of fantastical wonder. Teaming up with a Nutcracker guard, one Captain Philip Hoffman (Jayden Forowa-Knight), they come to an elaborate castle, which Clara learns to be the nucleus of what is dubbed as the Four Realms. Clara is also welcomed as their princess, her mother having united the kingdoms years before. Meeting Realm leaders The Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) and Shiver (Richard E. Grant), they learn the land is under threat by the Ruler of the Fourth Realm, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). Clara being the only one that can reunite the Realms, she is sent off on a quest to defeat Mother Ginger and become the hero her mother was before her.
Yeah, lots of parallels to other children’s fiction here, including Alice in Wonderland but perhaps most notably The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. From a young girl accidentally stumbling upon the mystical world – which is snowy, mind you – to her (and in the other example, her siblings) being the only ones who can save it. Pretty conventional stuff throughout, all things considered, a twist you can see coming toward the end being the only thing it does to spice itself up. While the humor and plotting taken on their own aren’t anything abysmal, it’s all so generic and trite it can’t quite establish a concrete identity. Even the unveiling of the Realms and the imagination put into it is so slight it feels like it could have fit into any fantasy flick. Granted, the lore behind The Nutcracker as a source material isn’t the richest of the bunch if we’re discussing strong starting off points, but you’d think Disney would be the experts on this front. Not to mention it’s fairly dispassionate, almost perfunctory. Frankly, I’m surprised Disney would want to go back to the kind of well they visited already twice this decade with Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass, which received a poor reception and came out only two years ago.
And speaking of Alice and her exploits, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms screams Wonderland visually speaking. While it’s nothing to scoff at, it still does little to differentiate itself from Tim Burton’s green-screeny vision. There’s less CGI, sure, but stylistically and chromatically they’re the same. Hell, you could have just renamed Clara to Alice and it’d be virtually no different. Still, it is a little less visually arresting, less likely to make your eyes sizzle after it’s over. What’s interesting to note is that it was technically directed by two different people, two directors who have entirely different styles. During the bulk of the production, Nutcracker was helmed by Lasse Hallström, who is far beyond his heyday when he was pumping out dramatic hits like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. When Disney ordered reshoots nearly a year later, Hallström was allegedly unavailable, so they brought on director Joe Johnston to round out the film, he being much more attuned to blockbuster family films, having done Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and the original Jumanji. What exactly he reshot is beyond me, but it would explain the plot’s general pedestrianism if it took a couple tries to get it right. Granted, oftentimes reshoots are beneficial and fix something that couldn’t be seen while on the job, but sometimes they muddle the bigger picture, which in this case seems to be true. While the style of the film remains consistent wherever the directorial shift exists, the story sometimes feels incoherent from scene to scene, almost like they’re pieces from two different puzzles.
As far as the source material is concerned, The Nutcracker has gone through quite a few different mediums since “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Most people know it for being a ballet composed by Tchaikovsky, oftentimes performed in December to coincide with its Yuletide themes. I personally have seen it performed at least twice, though I’d never call myself a ballet aficionado, it being more likely to put me to sleep than rouse my artistic esteem. That’s not to say the music composition is lacking in any respect, but it is an acquired taste, one that I have not. Acquired, that is. And since the material derives much of its popularity from the ballet, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms does its best to provide proper reverence. About halfway through, maybe less, an entire scene is devoted to Foy’s and Knightley’s characters watching a dance number that tells the story of the Four Realms, largely to provide exposition. Though it should be commended Disney’s inclusion of the scene, as it would have been just as easy to remove this downtempo sequence from an otherwise fantasy adventure film. And it is a bit slow, and it does impact the pacing, but the influence of the film is not lost on the makers of it.
And while it diverts from the story of the classic tale to some degree, those taken with the ballet should enjoy it, even if won’t land in the wheelhouse of a lot of viewers. Still, as far as the product as a whole is considered, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is far too derivative to be truly memorable. The cast and the effects are relatively suitable, but never does it capture the kind of magic you would expect from a Disney outing. But, if you’re really jonesing for a Christmas movie to go see this holiday season, you’ve got Illumination’s The Grinch coming out right on the heels of this one. That’s not to say it’ll be any better, but it’ll surely be more of a hit with the kiddies.
Final Score: 5/10