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MORTAL ENGINES

Producer: Zane Weiner, Amanda Walker, Deborah Forte, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson
Director: Christian Rivers
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
Stars: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Lelia George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang, Colin Salmon, Mark Mitchinson, Rege-Jean Page, Frankie Adams, Andrew Lees, Kee Chan, Caron Pistorius, Poppy Macleod, Mark Hadlow, Sarah Eirse, Megan Edwards and Peter Rowley
Studio: Universal Pictures

D

The apparently ceaseless quest to find another lucrative franchise based on some young adult book series about a dystopian future mostly results in terminally boring movies, but occasionally it produces a picture so goofy and overblown that it can aspire to the status of instant camp. That’s the case with “Mortal Engines,” adapted by Peter Jackson’s crew from the 2001 novel by Philip Reeves, the first in a series of four volumes. Rather than reminding you of “The Lord of the Rings” or even a disappointment like their “Hobbit” trilogy, however, it’s more likely to make you think of a total folly like Luc Besson’s gorgeous but totally wacky “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet”—or, to go back a lot further, of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a masterpiece of design that, in terms of narrative, is pretty nutty.

Like those pictures, “Engines” is for the most part visually astonishing. True, the great weapon unleashed in the final act, with all its towers spouting spurts of electrical energy, is a disappointment, reminiscent of that unveiled by villain Robert Vaughn in “Superman III” way back in 1983. (Come to think of it, the prune-faced woman managing its “on” button hearkens back to that movie, too.)

Otherwise, however, the picture is meticulously fashioned, from the look of the intricately layered cityscapes to that of the elegant airships. Most notable of all, though, is Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), a lumbering robot with glowing green eyes into which the consciousness of a dead man has been implanted—a truly striking embodiment of what is at one point referred to as a Lazarus being. Unfortunately, all the dazzling CGI work is in the service of a story that is, to put it charitably, ludicrous, and characters that are little better than stock figures, flatly played.

The premise is that the earth has been rendered a dying, depleted planet as a result of a long-ago cataclysm vaguely remembered as the Sixty Minute War. What’s left behind are a bunch of mobile cities and towns that move across the desolate landscape like huge tractors. In what’s called Municipal Darwinism, some are predators that gobble up others to seize their resources and turn their inhabitants into servile workers; the largest of these is London, which in the opening sequence is shown rumbling after a modestly-sized “Bavarian mining town,” which after a chase it catches and drags into its huge loading dock for disassembling. (The film will eventually reveal that there remains a near-paradisiacal alternative to these “Traction Cities,” an enclave behind a huge, well-fortified wall and governed by some sort of eastern guru, which also houses rebels belonging to what’s called the Anti-Traction League; but in the early going its existence is not mentioned.)

London is ruled by an imperious mayor (Patrick Malahide) decked out in a scarlet tunic, but its major player is Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), a scientist trumpeted for his work trying to find a permanent power source for the city. To that end he collects whatever shards of “old technology” he can find—a process that makes him a figure that young Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), a lowly apprentice archeologist at the city museum, holds in awe. The museum houses artifacts of the pre-war period (like Minion statuettes taken, in one of the film’s few real jokes, to be renderings of gods), which draws Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George) there for study.

While the three are conversing in the city’s corridors, a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) attempts to assassinate Valentine, making a cryptic remark about her mother. Tom chases her, but she jumps down a garbage chute to the planet’s surface; and when Valentine reaches him and Tom admits that he heard her accusation, Thaddeus pushes him down the chute too. The encounter is witnessed by Bevis Pod (Ronan Raftery), a mechanic who knows both Tom and Katherine.

From here the plot spins off in several related directions. Tom and Hester aim to survive on the desolate planet, desperately seeking to avoid scavengers and slave traders; they are eventually rescued from the latter by Anna Fang (Jihae), a kick-ass pilot in the Anti-Traction League, though not before Shrike makes his appearance, implacably stalking Hester with threats concerning a promise she once made him. Meanwhile it is revealed that what Valentine is actually building is a terrifying weapon based on ancient quantum technology, with which he intends to destroy the wall protecting the enclave ruled by Governor Kwan (Kee Chan), where the League is based; Katherine and Bevis join forces to investigate what he’s up to.

Meanwhile flashbacks reveal the connections between not only Hester and Thaddeus but between him and her mother Pandora (Caron Pistorius). They also detail why Shrike is after Hester, played in her earlier years by Poppy Macleod. Much of this is fairly perfunctory exposition, but the back-story of Shrike is actually rather poignant—indeed, by the time the robot’s story ends, one might find him a far more human character than the flesh-and-blood ones he interacts with.

That’s because under the heavy hand of Christian Rivers, a visual effects specialist making his directorial debut who—perhaps understandably in view of his background—seems more interested in the CGI backgrounds than the humans acting in front of them, the cast do not make a very favorable impression. Hilmar, Sheehan, George and Raftery are a pallid quartet of heroes; Sheehan’s attempt to play geeky and awkward before morphing into a valiant flyboy is especially embarrassing. Weaving turns on a dime from smooth to snarling with well-practiced but boring predictability, while Jihae and her colleagues in the League strut about in heroic poses but otherwise offer little of interest.

The backgrounds that all of them, and the other human players, appear in front of are, however, striking to behold, a testament to the dedication of production designer Dan Hennah, costume designer Bob Buck, cinematographer Simon Raby, and the army of effects wizards in Jackson’s employ. Even they grow tiresome after awhile, though, especially since the editing (by Jonno Woodford-Robinson) keeps to a funereal pace, probably to allow you to savor the visuals —and so does Tom Holkenborg’s score.

The ennui hits hard in the prolonged finale, an aerial assault on Valentine’s monstrous weapon that’s basically an industrial age variant of the attack on the Death Star in “A New Hope.” It seems to go on forever—like the whole movie.

There is good news, however, in the fact that the narrative ends conclusively, without the typical tent pole cliffhanger. Reeves’s books continue the story, but Jackson’s series can forego future installments, and undoubtedly will.

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

Producer:  Mark Gordon and Larry Franco
Director: Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston
Writer: Ashleigh Powell
Stars: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Matthew Macfadyen, Anna Madeley, Ellie Bamber, Thomas Sweet, Omid Djalili, Jack Whitehall and Sergei Polunin
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

D

When E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote his darkly menacing story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” more than two hundred years ago, he could never have anticipated what would be done to his fable over the centuries. First Alexandré Dumas lightened it up; then Tchaikovsky and Petipa turned it into a ballet that morphed into a Christmas perennial; and ever since choreographers have used that as a vehicle for their own egocentric statements and filmmakers have tried to find some way of bringing it to the screen imaginatively, usually with awful results (most recently Andrei Konchalovsky in his utterly ghastly 2010 “Nutcracker in 3D”). Things have gotten so bad that when the imperious grandmother of last year’s “Bad Moms Christmas” threatened her family with a complete five-hour performance of it “in the original Russian,” you felt a sense of dread—even though the description made absolutely no sense—because any staging or movie of “The Nutcracker” felt that long and that tedious.

Now with “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” Disney tries its hand at reimagining Hoffmann’s story in a way that might appeal to today’s viewers, and the result might work if the audience is composed entirely of little girls in princess costumes. Otherwise, its prospects are dim, because though not quite as dreadful as Konchalovsky’s tasteless take on the tale, it’s not for lack of trying.

The screenplay by Ashleigh Powell pretty much jettisons all previous versions (including the ballet, except for a few snatches of dance and music featuring luminaries like prima ballerina Misty Copeland, conductor Gustavo Dudamel and pianist Lang Lang, all of whom are wasted, although Dudamel gets to appear in silhouette, like Stokowski in “Fantasia”). She opts instead to turn the tale into a fairly typical CGI extravaganza about a strong young woman destined to fight evil.

That’s Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy, exuding spunk), who together with her father (Matthew Macfadyen), sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) is mourning the loss of her mother Marie on the family’s first Christmas without her. But Marie has left presents for the children, and Clara’s is an egg-shaped music box that requires a key to open, together with a note telling the girl “everything you need is inside.”

Believing—wrongly, of course—that the message refers to something hidden in the box, Clara seeks out her godfather, the inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), at his Christmas part for help in finding the missing key. He gives it to her as a gift, but it’s stolen by a mouse, who leads her into the snowy, magical realm of the four realms. There she’s told that her mother was the queen of the place, and she is now the heir to the crown (though why that shouldn’t be her older sister is never explained), and she accepts pledges of loyalty from the scatterbrained regents of three of the kingdoms: the lords of the Lands of Snowflakes and Flowers (Eugenio Derbez and Richard E. Grant), and the chattering Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), who rules the Land of Sweets.

Unfortunately, Clara is informed that the regent of the fourth realm, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), has turned tyrant, and with her gigantic robot, curiously bulbous harlequin-like lieutenants and army of mice threatens the entire magical world. Clara and Phillip (Jaydon Fowora-Knight), the Nutcracker-like soldier who has assumed the role of her protector, will have to confront her to restore proper balance to the place.

Things aren’t as simple as that, it turns out, since treason is afoot. But by this “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is following the pattern of that earlier Disney bomb “Alice Through the Looking Glass” in morphing into a chaotic effects-laden mess, a busy, boringly familiar account of dueling armies (mice and harlequins against mechanical soldiers) in a good-against-evil war that threatens Clara’s rule. Lavish but utterly without charm, the result is a “Nutcracker” that’s itself cracked, a brazen appropriation of a beloved title to sell a piece of tacky mass-produced merchandise.

The direction of this misfire is credited jointly to Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston (the former completed the picture before a month of reshoots—of material newly scripted by Tom McCarthy—was undertaken, and since Hallström was unavailable, Johnston took over); it’s hard to imagine that the final version can be an improvement over whatever preceded it, but at least the confusion over who’s responsible for what, concealed effectively by editor Stuart Levy, gives everybody some cover from blame. The one element that doesn’t deserve censure are the visuals, which have the usual Disney-quality gloss (Guy Hendrix Dyas was the production designer, Jenny Beavan the costumer); Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is colorful, and the effects are fine too, though the imagery of the Mouse King as a swirling mass of rodents could send some toddlers to seek the safety of the space under their seats.

The cast, however, suffer. Foy and the other youngsters are engaging enough, but the adults are more poorly used. Freeman gets by on his customary smooth charm, but Knightley is reduced to screeching her way through the final act, and Mirren suffers as much embarrassment as she did in “Collateral Beauty” two years ago. She really must become more discriminating in choosing her roles.

So once again a “Nutcracker” becomes the lump of coal among holiday cinematic treats. Is it really too much to ask for filmmakers to lay off abusing Hoffmann’s creation for awhile?