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?