At first glance, Disney’s big-budget adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s classic short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King looks like a surefire family-friendly blockbuster for the holiday season. It boasts a stellar cast including Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. It even has two veteran filmmakers (Lasse Hallstrom of Chocolat and The Cider House Rules and Joe Johnston of Jumanji and Captain America: The First Avenger) in charge of the direction.
And yet, just about everything here is a missed opportunity. But before I get to that, here is what The Nutcracker and the Four Realms all about: 14-year-old Clara (Mackenzie Foy) finds herself transported into a parallel world during her godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) annual holiday party. From there, she met a nutcracker soldier named Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and soon discovers that she’s actually a princess; her late mother happens to be the queen of the aforementioned parallel world who used to govern three Realms including Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers and Land of Sweets; there’s an ongoing war against the Fourth Realm’s Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) and her gang of mice; and Clara’s personal quest to find a particular key to unlock the mysterious Christmas gift belonged to her late mother.
So, what went wrong? Here goes: Ashleigh Powell’s adapted screenplay suffers from a generic, cookie-cutter “good vs. evil” storyline that’s all surface-level. There’s hardly a sense of childlike wonder, let alone a wow factor that immerse us into the Alice in Wonderland-like parallel world.
Even the cast is largely wasted here. This includes Mackenzie Foy’s disappointingly bland performance as Clara, while Jayden Fowora-Knight’s supporting role as Philip is both rigid and wooden. The rest of the cast including Keira Knightley’s Sugar Plum, Helen Mirren’s Mother Ginger and Morgan Freeman’s Drosselmeyer are all relegated to “paycheck” roles that barely made a lasting impression.
Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston’s directions are both perfunctory. They even squander the chance of a worldbuilding potential that could explore further in details surrounding the magical Four Realms. The movie’s otherwise compact 99-minute running time feels like half an hour too long, particularly how the overall story simply goes through the motions with little depth whatsoever. Even if the movie is aimed specifically for children, it’s still no excuse of dumbing down the plot.
The only saving grace is some of the technical achievements in this movie. Linus Sandgren’s mix of vivid cinematography and gliding camerawork alongside Guy Hendrix Dyas’ elaborate production design and Jenny Beavan’s lavish costume design deserve a few praises here. The overall CGI is decent and at times spectacular, particularly the sequences involving the life-size toy soldiers.