Courtesy of Disney
Because turning their animated classics into savvy live action vehicles isn’t enough, or the fact that half their release slate this year grossed upwards of a billion dollars. Disney literally has to poach any iconic property they believe can crank out a financial hit.
On paper, their newest holiday release “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” has all the makings of pop culture (and money making) riches, but instead wilts away under its own shortcomings. More or less, it feels like the mouse house just took bits from “Alice in Wonderland,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” and recycled them into a straight to DVD release that accidentally made it to theaters.
Sharing directing credits here is Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston (the former once lauded for his work on “The Cider House Rules” and the latter made the terrific “Captain America: The First Avenger.”) Oh how the mighty have fallen.
They were gracious enough to add “Four Realms” to their resume, and despite both filmmakers respectable filmographies, they can’t prevent this adaptation from becoming a flimsy and clunky misfire. Really, “Nutcracker” feels like it was dumped so it could free up space for Disney to focus solely on the upcoming “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Either way, this tale - inspired by the infamous ballet and short stories - finds the commendable Mackenzie Foy (“Interstellar”) front and center as Clara (if I had a dollar for each time her name was pronounced - I swear, I’d be a millionaire) an adventurous girl who - after stumbling through a hidden passageway similar to the wardrobe from “Narnia” - finds herself in an otherworldly dimension. An enchanting place called Christmas Tree Forest (five bucks if you can guess what this landscape predominantly features) and it’s here she meets the sole guard (and nutcracker) of the region: Philip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight).
Together, after striking up some clever banter, they venture to the uncharted fourth realm where Clara stumbles upon her heritage. Turns out, mom was the unofficial queen of the kingdom, which makes Clara a full blown princess and newest member of a growing dynasty. It also means she’s gotta protect each realm too.
Aside from some references tossed in from tales of the mouse king, one of the only true connections to the source material arrives when Hallstrom and Johnston sheepishly hurl a ballet sequence in the center of the film, explaining the details of how the realms came to fruition; Each with distinct characteristics and their own leader.
The first of such locations features Eugenio Derbez’s Hawthorne hailing from a realm of eco-friendly prosperity (he looks like the leaf flying dragon from “A Wrinkle in Time” only human form); the great Richard E Grant is poorly, and mistakenly underutilized as Shiver who oversees the frozen realm (and is sporting full Jack Frost garb, complete with icicles covering his eyes. Martin Short looked better in “The Santa Clause 3.”) Don’t worry, they’re brushed under the rug quick enough so you won’t get attached.
That said, probably the biggest hiccup “Nutcracker” brings forth is Keira Knightley as the high pitch, obnoxiously squealing Sugar Plum: a cotton candy haired queenie from the Gingerbeard realm. Picture Candyland, but on steroids. A walking migraine if ever one existed, I can’t imagine what type of direction (or freedom) Knightley was granted with this character. She certainly takes liberties, but never reels it in long enough for us to care.
Trying to help matters, all these colorful (and vastly underwritten) characters are forging an alliance around Clara’s newfound leadership in hopes they can end Mamma Ginger’s (Helen Mirren - adding some much needed credibility) reign of terror. Naturally, Mirren’s character is so loosely written her only motive can be to watch the world, or in this case, sugar, burn.
From a visual standpoint “Realms” looks like green screen fodder Disney couldn’t use in “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” Colors look blotched, and backgrounds cartoonish. An army of toy soldiers look phoned in, and Disney - as with the reindeer in “Frozen” or the chicken in “Moana” - tries to throw a cuddly mouse into the mix as your new favorite sidekick. Didn’t we already get that with “Ratatouille?”
Oh, and for those looking for Morgan Freeman (who has been making press rounds, is on poster, and featured in the trailer) he’s granted approximately ten minutes of screen-time. Cashing an easy paycheck to serve as the omniscient narrator tasked with making sure Clara finds the wonderland.
This all spits and sputters around like the uninspired adaptation it is. A family film that probably wouldn’t woo your children anyhow, let alone entertain their senses for almost two hours. A shame because the younger actors here (Foy and Knight) do their best to trudge through the motions. But it’s the veterans this time who feel out of sync. Especially Mirren and Knightly as two high profile actresses stooped to demeaning levels. Not since Ben Kingsley in “Thunderbirds” have Oscar winners looked so desperate for cash.
This is one realm you don’t need to visit.