There is no stranger cinematic offering this year than Disney’s ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’. But let that be stated when speaking of its concept, as it feels very much like Disney executives pulling a public domain property out of a hat and imbuing it with strange sensibilities. To that end, the actual film itself is often a very derivative affair, often feeling cut from the same cloth as other Disney properties, most notably the live-action ‘Alice in Wonderland’ films as well as their ‘Narnia’ franchise. It is undeniably beautiful to look at, as it excels with its stunning production design, costuming and visuals. Yet, beyond those facets, it is very hollow when it comes to earning emotion and substance, veering it more towards a disposable quality than a new yuletide classic.
With the story loosely based on the celebrated tellings of the Nutcracker fable, the film centres on Clara (Mackenzie Foy, ‘Interstellar’), a young woman still coming to grips with the passing of her mother. It's Christmas Eve, and as her family make their way to a lavish celebration, she is given a parting gift by her mother, a box that is set to contain a priceless gift inside. The only issue is that the box comes without a key, and it isn’t too long before it transports Clara to a magical land filled with sugarplum fairies, gingerbread soldiers and armies of mice. She is in the mythical four realms, and must travel to the unstable fourth realm to retrieve the key which will bring peace to the various kingdoms.
Many were quick to judge this film when news of it first arose, with it quickly joining the ranks of studio tentpoles that probed curiosity as to how and why it was in production. While the film we have is never quite able to rise above those condemnations, it admittedly has its charms. As undoubtedly, it offers a visceral thrill that easily summates itself at its apex. The production design is simply exquisite, offering decadent sets bathed in rich colours associated with its festive setting. This also extends to the costuming, which richly pervades itself through the various realms with stylish panache. It is a largely visual treat, creating worlds that are distinctive due to their vibrant allure and evoking of whimsy.
Beyond this, however, the film is expectedly discordant, with a real lack of originality present within the overarching narrative. We’ve seen this so often before - the young kid who struggles to adapt to conformity finds a strange, mythical land which calls her to power to stop a dangerous threat. And where ‘Nutcracker’ falls flat is that it adopts that trite storytelling approach and never chooses to go beyond it. Nothing is really examined with a sense of depth, with the film feeling comfortable not going beyond that standard tale of war in a world unlike our own with any serious heft and complexity. By way of story, it offers no surprises, and many beats often are perceived as predictable with no real attempt to deviate beyond the tropes that Disney have used in similar properties. We’ve just seen this kind of plot play out on too many occasions.
Aside from being an enjoyable little film to keep your kids occupied for an hour-and-a-half, there isn’t anything of substance to the proceedings.
And what this does, unfortunately, is make the film largely forgettable. It never ascends to anything transcendent with labels such as harmless, amusing and inoffensive much more accurate. It has its moments of promise, especially when tonally it decides to move to darker territories, and an all-out performance from Keira Knightley (‘The Imitation Game’, ‘A Dangerous Method’) certainly provides a bit more vitality. But it is just unremarkable, a near-perfect approximation of middle-of-the-road. Some performances are occasionally stilted, the CG offers a bit of uncanny valley occurrences and its formulaic tendencies drag it down.
In all fairness, there isn’t too much to be said about ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’. It isn’t as frustrating as when Disney poorly revamps a title from their animated canon, nor is it good enough to justify seeing the film. It looks pretty, and that is essentially where the lauding ceases. For what we could have received when this concept was revealed, it is much more entertaining than any right it has to be. But, aside from being an enjoyable little film to keep your kids occupied for an hour and a half, there isn’t anything of substance to the proceedings. A strong cast and great emphasis to what makes up the frame forms for a passable albeit imitative film. And depending what you’re looking for in a 2018 version of the Nutcracker, will more than likely determine whether you’re going to be content with that or not.