The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:


A Tough Nut to Crack

Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman
Walt Disney Studios
 99 Minutes
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy   
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Anyone who has ever seen a production of The Nutcracker probably remembers Tchaikovsky’s classic score, the array of dazzling costumes, and the graceful ballet moves. Few people, though, remember the rather simplistic storyline, and fewer still would go see a production without the music and ballet. Among those few, however, are the studio executives at Disney, who decided to create their own fantasy world based on the various Nutcracker stories. The resulting movie, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, turns all the charm and grace of the ballet into a third-rate version of The Wizard of Oz, with a storyline that seems to have been created by a screenwriter who had overdosed on sugar plums.


Actually, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker are two of the few recognizable characters in the Disney version of the story. As in the ballet, the heroine of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Clara (Mackenzie Foy), a plucky young teenager straight out of the Disney plucky-young-heroine school. She is in mourning after the recent death of her mother but reluctantly agrees to go with her father (Matthew MacFadyen) and siblings to the annual Christmas Eve ball hosted by longtime family friend (and Clara’s mother’s mentor) Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). Before her death, Clara’s mother left her a locked jeweled egg, and Clara wants Drosselmeyer’s help in figuring out how to open it.


Instead of merely providing Clara with the key, Drosselmeyer has her follow an extremely long piece of string that leads into a magical yet unnamed wintry wonderland. It’s not quite as fancy as Dorothy’s entrance to Oz, but it beats walking through a mothball-filled clothes wardrobe. Once Clara arrives but before she can get the key, a cute CGI mouse straight out of the cute Disney CGI mouse school grabs it and runs off with it. Clara soon meets a soldier named Captain Hoffman aka the Nutcracker (Jaden Fowora-Knight), who helps her follow the mouse to a spooky forest known as the Fourth Realm. When Clara and the Nutcracker can’t retrieve the key, they go the capital city of this unnamed land where they meet the rulers of the other three realms, including the charming but somewhat addle-brained Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley, channeling Bernadette Peters channeling Marilyn Monroe channeling Billie Burke as Glinda, the good witch). The Fairy and the rulers of the other two realms, who might as well be called Tweedledum and Tweedledee (and are played by Eugenio Derbez and Richard E. Grant), inform Clara that she is the new ruler of the magic land as the heir of her mother, the former queen.


Since Clara is understandably confused by what’s going on, the three rulers decide to enlighten her by having her watch a performance of selected portions of the Nutcracker ballet (performed by Misty Copeland). Armed with a better appreciation for classical music but not much in the way of helpful knowledge, Clara sets off to the fourth realm to confront its ruler, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), and her minions, not real minions, but, instead a group of bouncing balls dressed as clowns and capable of some remarkable feats of CGI-assisted acrobatics.


Of course, I’m being more than a bit flippant with this description, but the screenplay by Ashleigh Powell resembles something that Mike Myers might have contacted in a very early draft of one of his Austin Powers movies. The story even throws in the villain’s giant laser cannon of sorts (a device that Dr. Evil would have loved) that can transform a handful of toy soldiers into giant warriors. I’m not familiar with all the versions of The Nutcracker, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a giant laser cannon in any of them.


Despite incorporating some sequences from the original ballet and some of Tchaikovsky’s score, the first two-thirds of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is exceedingly dull. The film can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a drama about a young girl dealing with grief and trying to figure out how to grow up or an action movie featuring that same girl tangling with giant tin soldiers. As a result, the film plays like two shorter films uneasily mashed into one that spins its wheels a lot. The movie is only about 100 minutes long but seems far longer. Not even the score, the dance numbers, or the elaborate costuming can save it.


That costuming, along with some dazzling set design, are the sole worthwhile original elements of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Disney does have a knack with period costume pieces (like the live-action Cinderella of a few years back), and this movie seems almost guaranteed to pick up Oscar nominations in those categories. But as clever as some of the visual creations are, they seem to vanish entirely from viewers’ consciousnesses once they disappear from the screen. I saw the movie less than a week ago, but I’m already having difficulty recalling most of what I watched.


The reason that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms seems so disjointed is because parts of it were helmed by two different talented but quite different directors. Lasse Hallstrom was the original director, but when the studio decided some reshoots and additional material were needed, he was unavailable, and Joe Johnston brought in (both men receive director credits in the film. Hallstrom is a more character-minded director, so the earlier parts of the story about Clara’s problems in coping with her mother’s death would appear to be his contributions, while Johnston was apparently brought in to beef up the film with CGI effects better suited to a Jurassic Park film. However the film came together, the finished product just doesn’t work.


The Nutcracker and the Four Realms accomplishes a seemingly impossible, and by no means enviable feat. It manages to turn a musical and dance work that has enchanted several generations of both young and old into a dreary slog that seems more like a bad parody of the original material than an attempt to bring it to life. It also wastes the time and talents of Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, while turning Keira Knightley into someone who could be found in a third-rate drag bar. The only people to emerge from this film with reputations somewhat intact are Misty Copeland, a game Mackenzie Foy, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This Nutcracker isn’t a present anyone would want to find under a Christmas tree.

In this clip, Mackenzie Foy meets Keira Knightley and the other rulers of the realms.

Read other reviews of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: 

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) on IMDb