“THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS” — 2½ stars — Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren; PG (some mild peril); in general release
Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is not your father’s “Nutcracker,” but it might be your great-great-grandfather’s.
The term “nutcracker” is bound to conjure Christmas-tinged memories of Tchaikovsky, and at first glance, Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston’s film appears to be a sequel or a liberal riff on that familiar tale. But it seems the directors’ real intent was to get back to the darker source material from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story that inspired the 19th-century classic ballet.
The result might be a little shocking for unsuspecting audiences.
Like the ballet, “Four Realms” follows the adventures of a young girl who crosses into a fantasy world on a cold Christmas Eve. Teenage Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) and her family are mourning the recent passing of her mother. Her father, Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew Macfadyen), is trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive, but Clara, her older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) are slow to board Santa’s sleigh.
Just before heading out to a family party on Christmas Eve, Mr. Stahlbaum gives each of his kids a gift left to them by their mother. Louise gets her mother’s favorite dress, Fritz gets a set of wooden soldiers and Clara gets a mysterious silver egg that requires a special key to open.
(Don’t worry, the nutcracker is still coming.)
Unfortunately, the special key is missing, so when the family heads out to their godfather Drosselmeyer's (Morgan Freeman) party, Clara seeks his help. In this version of the story, Clara and her mother are both inventors — very mechanically inclined — and Drosselmeyer is a kindred spirit.
Abandoning the party in search of the key, Clara winds up crossing over into a dazzling fantasyland where she meets a nutcracker guard named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), encounters a creepy creature called the Mouse King and learns that before her passing, her mother was considered a queen.
This new world is divided into four realms, and Clara learns that three of them — the Lands of Sweets, Snowflakes and Flowers — are at war against the fourth, which used to be called the Land of Amusements until its leader, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), tried to overthrow the others. It's also Mother Ginger who has Clara’s key, which apparently opens more than her mom’s old egg.
The adventure that follows hints at familiar elements from the ballet and periodically references Tchaikovsky’s musical cues as Clara interacts with characters like Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the respective regents of the other three realms. There’s a bit more story to work with — and a twist or two — but the whole thing still feels a little on the thin side.
There’s also an effort to diversify the cast and mine a theme of female empowerment, but Hallstrom and Johnston seem more interested in “Four Realms’” spectacle, which is firmly on the Tim Burton end of the visual spectrum. The creepy Mouse King — a creature essentially built of hundreds of writhing CGI mice — kicks things off, but there’s plenty of macabre eccentricity to follow, such as a group of clowns that interact like a set of stacking Russian matryoshka dolls.
While “Four Realms” retains its PG rating, audiences might be surprised at all the creepiness mixed in with the more familiar Christmas cheer. It’s not enough to completely discourage families from taking their kids, but for those wanting a big-screen equivalent of the traditional "Nutcracker" experience, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” could be a surreal disappointment.
Rating explained: "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" draws its PG rating for some unexpected creepiness and some very brief mild profanity; running time: 99 minutes.