Disney's "The Nutcracker" Is A Christmas Turkey

It’s no shock that the best of Disney’s live-action “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms” plays like a music video; director Lasse Hallström only helmed dozens of them for fellow countrymen ABBA in the pop group’s heyday. It’s also no surprise how disjointed the finished product feels given that a different director, Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger”), was brought in earlier this year for a month’s worth of reshoots.

What is absolutely stunning is the film’s “parts only” approach to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic story and piecemeal use of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic music. Hearing a composition as evocative as “Waltz Of The Flowers” used diegetically in a Nutcracker movie is disorienting at best. Throw in the kind of narrative that seemingly goes out of its way to dishonor the term “reimagining” and you’ve got yourself the rare Disney movie that flirts with disaster.

For a few minutes at least, “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms” feels like it’s going to be pleasantly dull: suitably cozy background noise for hanging ornaments or wrapping gifts. But then Hallström’s lavish wide shots and garish supporting characters collide with Johnston’s hasty close-ups and static camera. The two parts (Johnston’s reshoots appear to comprise at least a third of the film) are incompatible, signaling an endeavor that was probably doomed from the start.

Mackenzie Foy (“Interstellar”) stars as Clara, carrying the movie as best as could be expected from a teenager, her poised performance a welcome counterweight to screenwriter Ashleigh Powell’s logic-challenged story. (Clara must traverse four Christmas-themed worlds to find a key left by her late mother.) The young actress acquits herself especially well compared to the ineffectual movie stars that surround her, two plainly uninterested Oscar-winners among them.

Morgan Freeman makes no impression at all as Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer, while Helen Mirren’s Mother Ginger quickly becomes one with the pic’s green-screened scenery. Then there’s Keira Knightley (“Pirates Of The Caribbean”) who plays a sugar plum fairy with ulterior motives, yelping her way through the most tragic performance of a long career. (Richard E. Grant and Eugenio Derbez round out the principals as lead snowflake and lead flower, respectively. Neither registers.)

Preeminent American ballet dancer Misty Copeland gives her all to the picture’s only two dance sequences; they still come off as perfunctory and out of step with whatever the rest of the film is doing. Newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight fares similarly as an earnest Nutcracker soldier named Phillip. His performance is fine, the character pointless, only validating the movie’s title. There are no other nutcrackers to be found.

With respect to Foy, Copeland, and Fowora-Knight, nothing here is worthy of the Nutcracker name. A straight retelling of Hoffmann’s story or Tchaikovsky’s ballet would have been far preferable, a biting reminder that originality is no substitute for quality. At least Hallström and Johnston’s film will be long forgotten by the next time The Nutcracker gets its big screen due.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: November 2, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Directors: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Screenwriter: Ashleigh Powell
Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Richard E. Grant, Eugenio Derbez, Misty Copeland
MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild peril)