The story of The Nutcracker seems like the kind of thing that Disney would have adapted decades ago, making the new The Nutcracker and the Four Realms one of the studio’s many cash-in live-action remakes of its beloved animated classics. But somehow The Nutcracker (from both E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story and the 1892 ballet adaptation by Marius Petipa with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) had previously passed Disney by, and so Four Realms only feels like a lifeless copy of an animated movie from the studio’s golden age.
Very loosely adapted from the source material, Four Realms stars Mackenzie Foy as teenager Clara Stahlbaum, who lives in a vaguely Victorian version of London with her widower father (Matthew Macfadyen) and her older sister and younger brother. Still grieving the death of her mother, Clara attends a lavish Christmas ball thrown by her tinkerer godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who gives her a gift that leads her into a magical world, where she’s welcomed as a princess.
What follows is a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia, a bit of Harry Potter, and a whole lot of Disney’s recent live-action takes on the Alice in Wonderland story. Somewhere in there, too, are elements of the original story and the ballet (including Tchaikovsky’s music), although they’re always obscured under mounds of garish CGI and a tired blockbuster chosen-one narrative. Ballet superstar Misty Copeland shows up briefly for a mid-film performance that serves as an introduction to the Four Realms, but otherwise the ballet is relegated to the closing credits, when Copeland gets a well-deserved uninterrupted showcase.
Instead, there’s a drawn-out fight for the fate of the Four Realms, pitting the dark and mysterious Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) against the preternaturally chipper Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley, giving it her all), with the wide-eyed Clara caught in the middle. Foy is pleasant but not particularly compelling as Clara, who learns some bland lessons about self-reliance and dealing with grief, and her chaste pseudo-romance with the Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight) is pretty dull.
Freeman and Mirren make only perfunctory appearances to lend their trademark gravitas to the proceedings, but Knightley consistently steals the show as the hyperactive Sugar Plum, who overshadows all the other inhabitants of the Four Realms and has a surprisingly lusty connection with an army of life-size tin soldiers. It’s hard to see what Disney’s typical kid audience will make of this awkward movie, which is rarely exciting or funny, and uses a visual assault as compensation for a disjointed, uninteresting plot.
That lurching narrative is at least partly the result of extensive retooling, so much so that journeyman directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston share credit, although they worked on the movie at separate times. The real auteur here, of course, is the Disney corporate behemoth, which has more than enough resources to ensure that Four Realms is never less than competent and watchable. In that sense, it’s not really any worse than Disney’s other recent live-action retreads, although at least those have the advantage of bringing up fond memories as they recycle them into new sources of revenue.