We’ve now gotten to the point where these endless Disney live action remakes of their best properties are an accepted way of life, some occasionally surprising (like ‘Cinderella’) but most putting us through two and a half hours of torturous drivel. Most make a tonne of money and seem to invade every facet of life, so it’s odd to find one like ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’, which seemed to disappear almost on arrival. There may be good reason for this though.
The film is an adaptation of the short story by E.T.A. Hoffman, making it a rare film in the recent Disney calendar that isn’t a remake of an animated classic (though it does make reference to ‘Fantasia’ at points). Clara (Mackenzie Foy, ‘Interstellar’) is willed a beautiful music box from her mother who has recently passed away, but she doesn’t know how to open it. During an annual Christmas ball, she is sent on a treasure hunt by her family friend and clockwork inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, ‘Se7en’) which leads her to a magical land where the three realms of Sweets, Flowers and Snowflakes are in perpetual war with a fourth - a war that only Clara can stop.
This is about as good a description as I can give of the film, because ‘Four Realms’ suffers first and foremost from a painfully convoluted plot, one that requires its screenplay to spend most of its time explaining what's going on with dull exposition. The more you try and follow it, the less it seems to try and hold your interest, ultimately just giving up entirely in its third act. Clearer direction might have saved it, but the production issues it suffered during filming are evident almost from the beginning (Lasse Hallström being unable to direct the extensive reshoots due to a scheduling conflict, with Joe Johnson coming to direct the reshoots and resulting in a shared credit). It isn’t that you can see two directorial hands in conflict (as in ‘Justice League’) but no hand at all; nothing about the direction suggests any kind of vision or clarity. As such, you just get lost in the dark woods of the story and design, with no-one to guide you.
The massive plot holes and inconsistencies doesn’t help either. Why are the real world sequences set in London, but everyone has German names? Why not set it in Germany? And why on earth is it called ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ when the nutcracker soldier Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) is relegated to the most secondary of characters? If he isn’t that active or important to the narrative, why is the film still named after him? This is obviously nitpicking, but I found the compounding list of inconsistencies so overwhelming as to be ultimately distracting.
Even the calibre of the cast can’t make it work, though Mackenzie Foy is incredibly charming as Clara, making you wish the film were the better a vehicle for her. Keira Knightley (‘Colette’, ‘The Imitation Game’) as Sugar Plum, the regent of the Land of Sweets, is having an absolute ball, high-voiced and ridiculous and relishing the chance to be silly, but other seasoned greats like Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen and Helen Mirren just can’t make the dialogue work, essentially playing one-note, utterly forgettable facsimiles of characters. Morgan Freeman even looks confused as to why he's there at all. Perhaps the saddest casualty though is Jayden Fowora-Knight, who has so much natural charm and warmth but is never given the chance to show it in the film. I really hope this is the start of a fruitful career for him and that ‘Four Realms’ doesn’t put it to rest.
There is one aspect of this film that did leave me impressed, and that is in the design. Ever since that ghastly ‘Alice in Wonderland’ film, we’ve seen these Disney "fairytales" regurgitate the same over-designed, vomit-inducing CG nightmares over and over again, most of their films, from ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’ to ‘Maleficent’ to ‘Beauty And The Beast’, all looking exactly the same. By contrast, ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ looks beautiful, heavily designed up to just the right point, and relying far more on practical sets rather than too much CG. The world of this film feels tactile, like you could reach out and touch it, with gorgeous textures and detail. It’s also beautifully shot by Oscar-winning ‘La La Land’ cinematographer Linus Sandgren and accompanied by a lovely reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet by James Newton Howard (not in the league of Mansell’s ‘Black Swan’ or Bruns’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but still pretty good). In many ways, despite how ultimately dull a film this is, at least rises above the other forgettable Disney films of late in one respect - it’s actually a well-made film.
The compounding list of inconsistencies (becomes) so overwhelming as to be ultimately distracting.
I probably would have quite liked ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ as a kid. It has a kind of charm to it, and while a forgettable film, not torturous to watch. As an adult, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its many problems, so many that the film ultimately drowns in them. It’s simply too much of a mess to work, not enough steady hands leading it in the right direction despite the more-than-usual hands at the helm. It’s not as memorably awful as most Disney live action films of late, but it’s still forgettable nonetheless.
PICTURE & SOUND
I was really looking forward to checking out ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ in 4K, and this 2160p 1.85:1 transfer doesn’t disappoint. Shot on both 35mm and 65mm, and finished as a 2K DI, the transfer shows off the best qualities of its film source. The more tactile quality of the design looks beautifully organic, especially with a fine grain field over the image, and the transfer exhibits strong clarity and detail. Colours blossom thanks to the HDR10 enhancement, but not in a manner that feels extreme or obnoxious. Whatever the issues with the film itself, at least its best qualities are beautifully on display here. There’s also a rich Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1 track that’s well-balanced and full-bodied, with the score sounding terrific in particular.
The set also comes with a 1080p Blu-ray with a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track.
All of the special features are included on the standard Blu-ray, and while they’re certainly scarce, they mostly address some of the better elements of the film. ‘On Pointe: A Conversation with Misty Copeland’ (4:36) uses a conversation with the acclaimed ballerina to look at the the creation of one of the film’s excellent ballet sequence, including comments from choreographer Liam Scarlett and dancer Sergei Polunin. ‘Unwrapping The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ (7:08) then focuses on the design of the film, emphasising the use of traditional design and special effect techniques, and the overall influence from theatre design, including interview snippets with the design team and the cast. Weirdly, there’s not a peep from either Lasse Hallström (who only appears for a second in one featurette) or Joe Johnson, and of course none of the production complications are addressed.
Otherwise we have a collection of forgettable deleted scenes (4:04) and two music videos, one for the quite striking 'Fall On Me' (4:23), performed by Andrea Bocelli and featuring Matteo Bocelli, and for 'The Nutcracker Suite' (4:06), a selection from James Newton Howard’s score featuring pianist Lang Lang and accompanied by clips from the film and ballet performances from Copeland and Polunin. It’s actually a pity that the film isn’t as interesting or sophisticated as this second music video; the film it sells looks far more exciting than the one we actually got.