Meant to be an enchanting and magical journey into another world, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is anything but. Directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, with a screenplay by Ashleigh Powell, the film is charmless, monotonous, and doesn’t do well in establishing its characters and the world they dwell in.
On Christmas Eve, Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is gifted a locked box, one passed down to her from her late mother, Marie. Clara is frustrated, however, because she’s left a note with no key. She also isn’t very pleased with her father (Matthew Macfadyen), who Clara believes to be unaffected by her mother’s death and is only concerned with maintaining tradition for appearances. Once at the annual Christmas party, her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), sets her on the path to find the golden key she needs to open the box. This path leads her straight into a magical world where she discovers that her mother used to be the queen of the four realms, realms she herself brought to life. However, the fourth realm, ruled by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), has broken away and wishes to wage war on the other three realms and it’s up to Clara and Phillip, the last Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight), to set things right.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is meant to be holiday escapism at its best. Instead, it’s dull and everything from the characters to the humor and plot fall completely flat. There is absolutely no heart at the center of the story and Clara has almost zero chemistry with everyone she interacts with, including the Nutcracker himself. The movie sets it up so that there could’ve been some romance involved between her and Phillip, but it manages to completely bypass it on almost every occasion, including their final scene together. It’s a noticeably odd choice given the direction of the movie and the original story.
The themes in the film, ones of loneliness, grief, and feelings of abandonment, are strong enough on their own, but ultimately have no merit on the narrative. It’s expected that we’ll feel sad because Clara’s mother is dead and that Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) misses Marie as well, but while these feelings drive the actions of the characters, they’re empty, devoid of true emotion, and aren’t as impactful as the film hopes them to be.
It’s unfortunate to say that Mackenzie Foy cannot carry a movie on her own. She stalls in moments which are meant to be elevated by facial expressions or tone of voice and she relies heavily on the dialogue she’s supposed to say without adding a bit of nuance to her performance. As the entirety of the film rests on her shoulders, Foy doesn’t rise to the occasion. On the other hand, Keira Knightley is excellent as Sugar Plum and really steals the show. She puts on a pitch perfect act and it’s unlike any role she’s ever played before, which is why her incredibly fun performance is wasted on a less than mediocre film. Another standout is Matthew Macfadyen, who puts so much heartache and a sense of loneliness into his performance in the very little screen time he gets.
On a positive note, the costumes and set designs are beautiful, detailed and ornate. On their own, they capture the spirit of what this film could’ve been had the story and characters had as much thought put in. The parade and ballet sequences, with famed ballerina Misty Copeland lending her talent to the scene, are exquisite and dreamlike.
Despite the fantastic costumes and sets, the film lacks in every other aspect. In addition, there are several instances where the dialogue is intent on letting the audience in on what’s going on, even while the event is unfolding before us. This film may be targeted towards children, perhaps, but it’s ridiculous to have to be told what’s going on by way of a play-by-play, especially since the film is pretty straightforward. Ultimately, there aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe the overall dullness of the film and, with its slow pacing, hollow storytelling and characters, the only fortunate thing about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is that it blissfully doesn’t last more than an hour and a half.