Oddly, The Nutcracker has always been misnamed. The two-act ballet, famously scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892, is based on a short story by Alexandre Dumas, "The Story of a Nutcracker,” itself adapted from German writer E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale “The Nutcracker and The Mouse King.”
But the classic Christmas tale has never really been about a nut crunching soldier come to life. The Nutcracker is about Clara Stahlbaum’s journey to a land of fantasy, her last grasp of at childhood magic as she toes the line between girlhood and womanhood. Disney’s latest live-action adaptation, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, tries to lean in on that narrative of girl power, casting young Clara (Mackenzie Foy) as an burgeoning inventor who, mourning the recent loss of her mother, travels to an ethereal parallel dimension in pursuit of a magical key that can open her mom’s final parting gift. But despite the undeniably gorgeous set design and stunning costumes, Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston's film (the latter was brought in to direct a month of reshoots because Hallström wasn't available, and therefore gets a shared directorial credit) lacks a clear focus, and rather than committing to a true reinvention of the story, meanders between cheesy plot points, becoming unnecessarily convoluted, and ultimately meaningless. (Just ask the 7-year-old kids sitting behind me who made incredulous noises throughout.)
We meet Clara in 19th century London on Christmas Eve, a time of revelry for most but not for the Stahlbaums, who are mourning the death of wife and mother Marie. Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen) isn’t coping well, and family tensions are at an all-time high. Clara doesn’t understand why he wants to act as if nothing’s happened, and her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) are just trying to hold on to what family they have left. That night, while at a Christmas ball hosted by her mysterious godfather and fellow inventor, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), Clara follows a golden thread to a hidden present, which ultimately leads her out of London and smack into the snowy planes of The Christmas Tree Forest. There, she encounters a real-life nutcracker soldier, Captain Phillip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight), and regents who preside over three of the four realms: the breathy-voiced Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) regent of the Land of Sweets, Shiver (Richard E. Grant) the frosty regent of the Land of Snowflakes, and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), regent of the Land of Flowers, whose pompadour is topped with blossoms.
It soon becomes clear that Clara isn’t unknown to this magical place. Her mother, Marie, was Queen of the Four Realms, and in her absence, things have quite fallen apart. The fourth realm is off limits — its leader, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) has been belligerent towards the other leaders in the past, and her land, formerly known as the Land of Amusements, has fallen into disrepair and become overrun by mice. Still, as Clara finds out, her real enemies may be a little more difficult to unmask than first appearances might suggest.
The film’s weakest link is the dialogue, which is more eye-rollingly saccharine than all the marzipan, meringue and cream frosting in the Land of Sweets combined. But equally disappointing is the way the updated story, which could have been a compelling exploration of the way grief and loss inform a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, instead devolves into a predictable and derivative (it's all very Narnia) hodgepodge of fantasy-action that distracts from the elements that make the Nutcracker spectacle what it is. The clear highlight, Misty Copeland’s beautiful ballet sequence recounting the history of Marie Stahlbaum’s discovery of the realms, is gorgeous and intricate, an all-too brief teaser of what the film could have been had Disney been more willing to take risks, and get a little weird.
Still, there are some redeeming factors. A lot has been made about the film’s diverse casting, and it is gratifying to see Disney making a conscious push in that direction. The impact of having three Black actors cast in prominent roles that have been long been played by white performers, in a fairy tale that has helped define our understanding of Christmas, cannot be overstated.
What’s more, Jenny Beaven’s costumes are indescribably beautiful, each outfit outshining the next. At some point, Clara dons a military-inspired gown that I expect to see on every Fall runway in 2019 — Nutcracker chic is the only way to live. The world-building that is so essential to a movie boasting four separate realms in its title, not to mention some of the lovelier bits of Victorian London (everything is swathed in sparkly snow and a warm gaslight glow that belies any thought of Oliver Twist), impressively comes together courtesy of Lisa Chugg’s set design. This is a universe you want to crawl into the second Thanksgiving ends and stay warmly cocooned, draped in velvet and luminescent silks, through the New Year. To top it all off, James Newton Howard’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score is gorgeously woven throughout: the bombastic horns of a march swell in a pageant scene, while the more subdued melody of the pas de deux plays subtly from a music box.
As Sugar Plum, Keira Knightley is as deliciously vapid as her purple and pink cotton candy hair, and it’s hard not to love her for it. It’s a role so unlike any she’s ever played before, all helium voice and flutter-wings, and she owns every second of her screen time. Foy, who got her start as Renesme in the Twilight franchise is all grown up, and as delicately beautiful as the dolls Clara brings to life. But in a welcome twist on the traditional tale, her Clara is based on brains and guts — if only the film gave her more to work with. Likewise, Mirren gives Mother Ginger some heart, but she’s wasted on such a flat character, whose true identity isn’t even revealed until near to the end. (Speaking of endings, make sure to stay for the bizarre and enchanting credits, which I would happily have watched for the film’s entire run-time.)
Ultimately, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms seems destined to be one of those movies you chance upon Christmas day, watch the first half of while your Netflix digital Yule log crackles, and then move on, feeling cozy but somewhat underwhelmed. It’s not terrible — but it could have been so much more.
"The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" hits theaters November 2.