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Disney Turns The Nutcracker Into a Transparent, Vacuous Failure of a Film


The Nutcracker is the only ballet I’ve ever seen performed live. It was around Christmas 2002 by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and I still haven’t forgotten what a unique experience it was. From the dazzling on-stage effects, to the effortless dancing communicating what I’d never thought could be communicated in a non-verbal form, to Tchaikovsky’s glorious music overwhelming the whole concert hall. It really is amazing, one of the best-known ballets for a reason, and its brilliance is nowhere to be found in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
It’s just bizarre Disney would even make this movie. The Nutcracker is a public domain property, both the original E.T.A. Hoffman short story and the ballet, meaning anyone can make a movie of it, and anyone can reproduce its music, as has been done numerous times by schlocky film studios, cheap animation companies, and inexperienced filmmakers with access to a camera and basic editing software. With Disney so inordinately, frighteningly powerful a conglomerate, why would it waste its time reinventing a story that literally anyone could do? The reason may be so that Disney can absorb another iconic fairy tale intellectual property into its brand as they tried years ago with Oz the Great and Powerful; but in this case it’s even more for naught because The Nutcracker is easily the studios’ worst film since 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.
Adapting elements from both the story and ballet and adding quite a bit of their own, The Nutcracker follows Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) gifted with an egg-shaped box on Christmas that belonged to her mother. At a ball, her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) shows off the inventive toys and machinery he and her mother created, and soon after she finds herself wandering into a magical world where a war is being raged between four once-united realms and she has a destiny to end it.
The directors of this film are Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, each highly experienced and capable in their own right, and it’s shame to see them working on such a shallow project. What this movie is desperately trying to replicate is Disney’s Narnia series, Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, and a little bit of The Wizard of Oz. This is clear in both its plot elements and visual stylings, borrowing the same kinds of effects, such as pale colour schemes and unconvincing CGI animals (the Rat King is a joke); layouts, such as dark forests and glamorous palaces; and motifs, such as a girl entering the magical world in a wintry forest. Nothing in the films’ world and characters are its own, all are loose replicas of other more successful Disney trials. Like with Alice in Wonderland, the film feels the need to create a mythology around a story that absolutely doesn’t need one, making a rather simple fairy tale excruciatingly complex. The cynicism is pretty blatant too, and its themes of self-worth and determination extremely trite and hollow. And the story, which goes in a different direction from the traditional tale, is unceasingly dull and incompetent.
In the lead role, Foy plays the most conventional of “unique” girl protagonists. She suffers from a lot of the same characterization flaws as Mia Wasikowska’s Alice, with broad character traits alluded to way more than shown, the thinnest progressivism required, and a non-existent identity. The film is little more than a paycheck for Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, and Matthew Macfadyen just plays and exudes sadness as the lazily written father. Newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight may be the only actor legitimately trying with the material as he plays Captain Philip Hoffman, the nutcracker of the story. Despite being the title character, the Nutcracker of this variation is little more than a sidekick, and isn’t ever exceptionally heroic. Richard E. Grant and Eugenio Derbez are excessively costumed as a pair of utterly bizarre fairies, and Jack Whitehall and Omid Djalili provide unfunny comic relief as the guards of the Sugar Plum Fairy. As for that character, Keira Knightley might be the most insufferable part of the movie. Her overacting would be bad enough, but the juvenile high pitch with which she delivers her lines is such an appalling choice it makes for a constantly grating screen presence. She was either horribly misdirected or thought she was giving a Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons kind of performance, entertaining for its sheer silliness. But she’s not having enough fun for that to come across at all.
There’s a criminal lack of Tchaikovsky in this movie, and while I love James Newton Howard as a composer, there should have been no additional score. Samplings of the original music are used, mostly the famous ones like the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (though no Russian Dance), but only in a few moments; or else they’re diluted and rearranged as background orchestration. The best sequence in the movie is the staging of part of the actual ballet (used as an expositional device), performed by Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin, who are excellent. The scene even features a shot of an orchestra conductor in silhouette in clear homage to Fantasia, though it only made me pine for that far superior movie and its illustrious Nutcracker tribute.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a transparent and empty shell of a beautiful work of art. It’s arid and condescending and slovenly and completely misses the dreamlike serenity, spirit, and rhythm of the ballet. Go and watch that instead if it’s playing somewhere near you during the Holiday season, and let this movie fade into well-deserved obscurity.

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