Ballet-inspired Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn't quite on point
Kiera Knightley shines in this undemanding fairy tale.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Christmas comes with its own unique blend of delight and disappointment. Opening a beautifully wrapped present to find it's not quite what you wanted. Getting the driest piece of turkey. Pulling a cracker and not winning a little plastic toy.
latest live action fairy tale The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a beautifully wrapped Christmas confection but still feels a bit like gorging yourself on rich chocolates then lifting the plastic tray to find there's no more underneath.
The film begins with a dizzying swoop over the frozen Thames and through the snow-blanketed chocolate box streets of olde London town. We meet Clara, an inquisitive teen with a fascination for science and technology, and her family, still grieving the loss of their mother. Like the famous Lion-bothering wardrobe-wanderers, Clara finds herself in another world, thrown headlong into a dynastic struggle between fairy tale princesses, living toy soldiers and bizarre fairground grotesques.
This isn't Narnia, this is the four realms: home of various toys brought to life in the lands of flowers, sweets and snowflakes, as well as a fourth realm that cannot be named. The erstwhile queen of the four realms was none other than Clara's mother, making Clara both a princess and the only person who can end a war pitching the realms of sweetness and light against the sinister Mother Ginger.
Mackenzie Foy is engaging as the resourceful and intelligent Clara, perfectly practical in every way. She might be a Disney princess, yet she's no damsel in distress.
But the real star of the show is Kiera Knightley, camping and vamping as the candyfloss-coifed Sugar Plum Fairy. Knightley is delightful, clearly having a ball as the breathy, petulant confectionery queen. Her panto performance is easily the sparkiest part of a film that otherwise struggles to get up to speed.
Sadly, Richard E Grant's stalactite-encrusted sovereign of snowflake-land is largely frozen out of proceedings, as is Morgan Freeman's crackpot toymaker. Helen Mirren is Mother Ginger, but even when she's wielding a whip she looks like her mind's on other things. And Matthew MacFadyen's widowed father is a little too wounded to sell his role as a stern patrician.
The film as a whole struggles to whip up much spark, like a tin toy that won't race no matter how much it's wound up. The director's credit is shared between Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who's reported to have reshot part of the film. And while there are some visual flourishes much of the film is mired in matter-of-fact wide shots, sluggish editing and extremely vague story beats.
It's not the worst idea in the world to make this a sequel to the classic tale rather than a direct adaptation, but it does mean the first half of the film is mired in endless backstory. Such a substantial portion of Clara's introduction to the fantasy realm involves characters telling her about her mother's adventures that you start to wonder if they shouldn't just have made that movie instead.
It's true that everything looks fantastic as Clara heads into a lavish and dazzling fantasia. But in the age when you can do anything with CG, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms almost looks too good. One of the first things we see is a Rube Goldberg, Heath Robinson-style machine built by Clara to entertain her younger brother, but it's clearly a digital effect -- which defeats the whole point of these ingenious contraptions and feels like a cheat. In fact, everything in Clara's Victorian home reality is so over-embellished with CG that it doesn't feel like much of a journey when she heads into another world. When both worlds feel like the painting on a chocolate box come to life then there's no contrast between the real and the realms.
In fact, one of the most spellbinding sequences is the one that most appears to be done "for real". Top ballerina Misty Copeland performs The Nutcracker on a stage for the assembled denizens of the Realms, and even if this sequence is touched up with CG it feels incredibly grounded. There are no impossibly gravity-defying camera moves, no obvious digital doubles. It's just supremely talented dancers, smartly lit amid elaborate sets and evocative silhouettes.
Now I'm no luddite: there are some dazzling CG creations on display. A nightmarish foray into a fogbound fairground is a spooky highlight, while the Mouse King -- a seven-foot mass of roiling rodents -- and Mother Ginger's macabre harlequins are computer-generated conjurings likely to fuel the nightmares of a generation.
Overall, this Nutcracker is at its best when combining cutting-edge visuals with charmingly old-fashioned elements, like marching toy soldiers and clockwork chaos. It's a tin toy in the age of the Xbox, but in a good way.