Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

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You might think that sometimes Disney would be OK simply letting there be a point in the schedule when they didn’t have a major film taking up multiplex space, given how successful literally every other venture they engage in is at this point. But with their reimagined Jack and the Beanstalk feature Gigantic canceled, Disney decided to take advantage of the fact that both The Nutcracker’s story and the memorable parts of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score are technically public domain so they’d have a presence during the holiday season.

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The Nutcracker and The Mouse King was an 1816 German children’s novella by E. T. A. Hoffmann that was retold by the French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1844 and then adapted from that version into the Russian ballet The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892. If you’re not familiar with the story you might want to hit up CliffsNotes before seeing Disney’s version because The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (for some reason) opts to frame itself as a pseudo-sequel to a version of the original story which is about a little girl spending Christmas Eve in the home of her eccentric inventor godfather having maybe/maybe not dreams about a magical war taking place between her collection of dolls and an army of evil mice living in the walls. Also a nutcracker is involved.

You probably know this because the ballet is iconic and Tchaikovsky wrote the hell out of its titular suite. In any case, in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, said little girl has grown up, had a daughter of her own and (because this is a Disney movie with a female protagonist) died. So our heroine Clara (Mackenzie Foy, who played the magical toddler Renesmee in the last Twilight movie) is being all antisocial at Christmastime because of the whole dead mom thing and because said deceased matriarch’s last gift to her is a weird clockwork egg missing it’s key.

While searching the aforementioned eccentric godfather’s (Morgan Freeman, underplayed in the marketing because of “reasons”) mansion for the key, she stumbles into the same fantasy kingdom her mother once visited. It turns out to be a colorful vaguely Russian/German/Prussian (possibly) secular Christmas-themed wonderland divided into four kingdoms representing toys, dessert, snow and flowers, which in her mother’s absence have descended into bitter nigh-apocalyptic civil war and full police state mode.

Yes, not only is this unnecessarily a sequel, it’s (for some reason) unnecessarily somebody’s idea of a PG version of Alan Moore’s Lost Girls or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s an attempt at a dark follow up to innocent stories that relies less on unnerving revelations about dark subtext and more on replacing the whimsical fairytale ballet stuff with generic action beats and family-safe versions of the fantasy kingdom political skullduggery stuff everyone assumes everything in the genre needs now thanks to Game of Thrones. And of course a nutcracker is involved, here played by newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight doing a serviceable “dashing young hero guy” turn but not solving the whole issue of the Nutcracker being the least interesting character that weirdly plagues every version of this story.

Instead, the film is (naturally) all about Clara having to woman up and find the key to her mother’s mystery gift because it’s also probably the key to saving sort-of-Russian not-Narnia (and, maybe also herself?), defeating whichever of the Four Realm’s regents is the villain, then defeating the real villain because of course there’s a double cross so we can learn not to judge books and covers and such. This is all done using the STEM skills that made her a misunderstood tomboy in the real world. The sinister fairytale kingdom domination plan, meanwhile, is one part dark metaphor for Clara’s own abandonment anxiety and acting out, and two parts fascist army of robot storm troopers.

Yes, really. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to expect from a dark(ish), girl power, Disney brand sort of sequel to The Nutcracker, but I’m pretty sure “Helen Mirren fighting hussar Terminators with a bullwhip” isn’t a key third act element that leaps immediately to mind. Yet it honestly could stand to be weirder — The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is definitely a hodgepodge, but mostly of stuff you’ve seen over the last 10-15 years of fantasy movies. It was reworked in post-production, with two directors (The Cider House Rules’ Lasse Hallstrom and Captain America: The First Avenger’s Joe Johnston) sharing credit, and I’d love to see what it was before all the retooling. As is, it feels at least two overly sober executives away from an accidental Return to Oz-style gonzo cult classic.

And yet I sort of, for lack of a better phrase, “dug it” on that level. It’s a mess of a thing, but it’s got that same utterly bonkers energy I know a lot of folks enjoyed from Jupiter Ascending, though here it exists without the pretense of rising to any level beyond randomly generated middle school girl self-insertion fanfiction. It’s not “good,” but it’s also hard to be too annoyed with something that’s fairly honest about its own ambitions, throws a lot of material at the wall to get to a workable movie together, and manages to clock in at an unobtrusive 90 or so minutes. It feels very much like something that will eventually find an audience that will sincerely love it for the better film they can imagine peeking out through the cracks in the more generic parts.

Fascinatingly, the far and away biggest reason to see this movie turns out to be Keira Knightley’s performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She appears to have decided to make this Disney filler movie an audition tape announcing she is ready and willing to jump feet-first into full-blast High Camp Diva Icon mode the moment she lands on the other side of the leading lady career arc. She’s arch, over-the-top flamboyant, spitting out every line with 210% conviction in an unearthly accent somewhere between “mercury-maddened Victorian countess” and “baby-voiced go-go dancer.” I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an English actor not named Tim Curry spend an entire film with their performance pitched in the key of “perpetually 20 seconds from literal orgasm.” She’s really something else in this. I just wish the rest of the cast cared as much (or maybe as little?) as she did.

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.