The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

 

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Tchaikovsky’s ballet is given a rum makeover in this big-budget misfire from Disney.

   
Nutcracker and the Four Realms, The

Going to work on an egg: Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy

 

There is an air of desperation creeping across the corporate storyboard at the Disney Dream Factory. While rolling out a swath of live-action remakes of their animated classics, the company has been casting around for a new well of creative opportunity. The music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is rich in narrative potential, particularly the ballets, which come with their household tunes and fantastical characters. Here, the scenarist Ashleigh Powell has gone back to E.T.A. Hoffmann's original 1816 short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and has opened it out into a full-blown saga with influences ranging from C.S. Lewis and The Wizard of Oz to Eva Herzigová. Yet all those traditional Disney elements remain: the nocturnal rooftops of London, a snowy Christmas Eve, a beautiful young princess, an absurdly ornate palace, a magical realm, a creepy forest full of treacherous roots and, that most over-used Disney cliché of all, the heroine without a mother.

 

At the centre of all this is young Clara Stahlbaumz (the Californian actress Mackenzie Foy), a mechanical genius who invents Heath Robinson contraptions to amuse her younger brother, Fritz (Tom Sweet). But on Christmas Eve, the gift that she is left by her late mother is one mystery she is unable to crack. It is a Fabergé-like egg but, without a key, she is unable to unlock its secret. However, “Everything you need is inside,” claims the accompanying note. Meanwhile, poor Mr Stahlbaumz (Matthew Macfadyen) is unable to get anything right, and in spite of his best efforts, the family’s spectacular Christmas tree is “not how Mother did it.” Then off they all troop to a Christmas dance, where Clara slips away to meet up with her American godfather, Drosselmeyer. Being played by Morgan Freeman, he is a wily old cove and knows stuff that other mere mortals don’t. “It’s going to be a magical night,” he declares. And so it is. While the stylishly besuited guests dance to Tchaikovsky, Carla follows a golden thread with her name on it and is lead down a darkened tunnel…

 

What follows is a bizarre head-trip as Clara encounters the eponymous Four Realms and a young, well-spoken black guard (Captain Hoffman) played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, who turns out to have the title role. There’s also the terrifying Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), ruler of the Fourth Realm, who is guarded by demonic, tumbling clowns, and Richard E. Grant as a haughty snowflake (with barely a line of dialogue). But the real eyebrow-raiser is the Sugar Plum Fairy played by Keira Knightley, who camps it up outrageously and sounds like she’s swallowed a canister of helium. She’s obviously having fun. As Clara, the 16-year-old Mackenzie Foy – who played Mathew McConaughey’s daughter in Interstellar – manages to ground the film with a display of poise, pluck, beauty and an excellent English accent.

 

The last time Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren appeared in the same film was in Collateral Beauty, which was also about grief, was completely batty and perhaps equally misconceived. In the latter, Keira Knightley played Love and Helen Mirren was Death, but at least the film seemed genuinely heartfelt. Here, the tone is all over the place, like a sumptuous pantomime on amphetamines. When Keira’s Sugar Plum Fairy bellows, “Boys in uniform with weapons sends a quiver right through me!”, the ghost of Mae West engulfs all before it. And Disney seems to know it had problems. Months after the film had been completed under the direction of Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston was brought in for extensive re-shoots, with fresh material by the writer Tom McCarthy (he who won an Oscar for his screenplay to Spotlight). Unfortunately, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which also had a directorial replacement, The Nutcracker feels like several films thrown together. And what it lacks more than anything else is a sense of that old Disney magic.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Sergei Polunin, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Ellie Bamber, Omid Djalili, Jack Whitehall, Meera Syal, Tom Sweet, Anna Madeley.

 

Dir Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, Pro Mark Gordon and Larry Franco, Screenplay Ashleigh Powell, Ph Linus Sandgren, Pro Des Guy Hendrix Dyas, Ed Stuart Levy, Music James Newton Howard and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Costumes Jenny Beavan.

 

Walt Disney Pictures/The Mark Gordon Company-Walt Disney Productions.

99 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 2 November 2018. Cert. PG.