“The Nutcracker And The Four Realms” is chocolate box art lavishly brought to over-saturated, over-sugared, overly decorated life on the big screen. And, like the contents of that box of chocolates, there are moments of sublime deliciousness, a few over-sweet gooey confections and even the occasional nut. It’s hard to resist all the tempting treats on offer, even if gobbling them all up in one sitting does make you feel slightly queasy.
Adapted from the ballet “The Nutcracker” by Marius Petipa and the short story “The Nutcracker And The Mouse King” by E T A Hoffmann, the film tells the story of Clara (Mackenzie Foy), a clever and inventive girl who is gifted a locked, jewelled egg by her recently deceased mother and is transported to a magical land while trying to unlock its secrets.
Swooping and swirling through a glorious fantasia of yuletide Dickensian Victoriana, “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms” opens with what appears to be a low-tech bit of product placement for the game “Mousetrap” before it plunges into a whirlwind introduction of the characters. These are unwrapped in a flurry of pretty paper, setting the superficial emotional stakes before whisking us off to an opulent party at the house of family friend/ mentor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). It’s Drosselmeyer’s wonderfully whimsical, impossibly impractical Christmas gift distribution system that delivers Clara into the world of the Four Realms, an enchanted parallel universe discovered (and apparently ruled over) by her mother. She arrives in what many characters refer to as the Christmas Tree forest (which makes it odd when one of the regents of the four realms doesn’t know what Christmas is later on) and it all feels very Narnia-esque, albeit without all the tiresome Christian allegory. There’s not much time for exploring the history or nature of the four realms and all exposition is purely in service of pushing Clara forward through one spectacular setting after another. It’s a shame too because, in the rush to show how magical everything looks, we don’t get an appreciation for how magical everything feels.
It’s all very fluffy, very bright and colourful and suitably magic, even if it is as hollow as the tin soldiers which play such an important role in the story. Just be aware that amongst all the delicious chocolates in this candy-coloured assortment, there are a few unexpectedly strong liqueurs such as the marvellously realised Mouse King and the straight-up nightmare fuel (especially for coulrophobics) of Mother Ginger’s acrobatic personal guard. Visuals aside, it’s an uneven and somewhat disjointed film, betraying perhaps the effects of two directors, significant reshoots and the story, thin as it is, feels underdeveloped, as do many of the supporting characters, meaning the likes of Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Richard E Grant and even Matthew Macfadyen, as Clara’s father, get little to do and Miranda Hart’s Dew Drop Fairy is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief. More time is allotted to a painfully unfunny double act between Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall, which just seems like poor prioritisation, especially as those (and other) characters drop in and out of the narrative, sometimes literally, in a way that smacks of desperate midnight oil burning in the edit suite.
Still, it’s beautiful to look at and, from a certain angle almost seems like it could be a live-action reimagining of “Adventure Time” (although it would definitely have benefitted from some Lumpy Space Princess and Marceline energy). There’s also, at its soft centre, a beautifully staged ballet sequence featuring a nod to “Fantasia” and a performance by Misty Copeland which – in a film crammed with CGI vistas – seemed to me to be fully staged in the real world using cutting-edge stage effects and exquisite scenery design.
Shiny, glittery and artfully filigreed, there’s a saccharine superficiality to “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms” that’s like mainlining every single Christmas ornament on the tree in one hit and while its undeniably appealing and oh-so-sweet while you’re watching, it’s as enduring as cotton candy and will leave you hankering for something more substantive mere hours after it’s done.