When it’s not absorbing rival movie companies (20th Century Fox, LucasFilm, Marvel) or expanding its TV empire (ESPN), Disney’s trawling the public domain archives for exploitable intellectual property (IP), like, for example, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a loose adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic 19th-century short story-turned-perennial ballet that probably should have skipped multiplexes and premiered on the Disney Channel on a long holiday weekend. A mid-production switch from one veteran filmmaker, Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog), to another veteran director, Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger, Jurassic Park III, The Rocketeer), should have given Disney execs a clue that they should have shelved their Nutcracker adaptation at worst or skipped a theatrical release altogether at best, but apparently common sense went missing on whatever day the decision was made to release The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a few weeks before the long Thanksgiving weekend.
Working from Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay – with an uncredited rewrite from Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) – Hallström and Johnston play the “dead parent or parental figure” plot device as their opening gambit, introducing precocious teen Clara (Mackenzie Foy) in grief mode over the recent death of her mother to an unspecified terminal illness. Only the most callous and heartless of moviegoers would, of course, find Clara unsympathetic and forgive her the posh, materially comfortable lifestyle afforded by her father, Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen), and his obviously healthy bank account. Like Clara, her father’s deeply mourning the loss of his wife, but unlike Clara, her father consciously chooses to set aside his grief for social obligations, including a Christmas party at the mansion-sized home of Clara’s one-eyed godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). A clockmaker and inventor by trade and inclination, Drosselmeyer sees a kindred spirit in Clara’s interest in the sciences, encouraging her natural curiosity and interests.
Freeman’s colorblind casting as Clara’s godfather-mentor may serve the admirable desire to promote ethnic, racial, and presumably, cultural diversity, but at least in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a film set in a recognizably mid-19th-century Europe, it gives a completely false, wrongheaded impression of history. That problem extends to Clara, a “clever girl” (a patronizing phrase dropped into the dialogue several times, and a idealized, romanticized society where race and gender don’t exist (or if they do, they’re ignored), though class, as always, does. Not that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms wastes any time on anyone outside of Clara’s family or class. It doesn’t. Hallström, Johnston, Powell, and McCarthy are far more interested into converting the Nutcracker into a familiar story of female empowerment and reconciliation with loss, grief, and family, than exploring, let alone questioning, life in 19th-century Europe. That would have been far too “realistic” for a family-oriented movie.
After getting the introduction of Clara and her world out of the way, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms finally gets underway when Clara wanders out of a holiday party on Drosselmeyer’s estate and into a Narnia-inspired winter wonderland. Almost immediately, Clara meets the Nutcracker of the title, Captain Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a soldier exiled to lonely service guarding the bridge between the city-block-sized realms of the story. Just as quickly, Phillip leaves his post on Clara’s orders (she’s considered royalty in the four realms) and joins her in pursuing her heart’s desire: a special key that will open a special egg gifted to Clara by her mother before she passed away. Stolen by a belligerent, pugilistic mouse, the key seems all but lost, but Clara, taking a page from the “Goonies never die” playbook, decides to press on and seek the help of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), one of her mother’s onetime favorites and confidantes. In turn, the Sugar Plum Fairy sees Clara as the means to ending her rival, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), threat to the four realms (or something along those lines).
From the perpetually artificial, flat, pasted-in look of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s obvious little, if anything, was shot outdoors. It’s just as easy to imagine practically the entire film shot in green screen, with everything, indoors and outdoors, added in later by visual effects vendors. While some effects look passable for basic cable or network television, others look three or four renders away from completion at best. Human characters rarely interact with CG characters with even the most basic plausibility (watch out for the mouse king), though the introduction of CG-aided circus clowns in Mother Ginger’s employ add a creep factor above and beyond what moviegoers normally expect from family-oriented movies like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.