On the diminishing returns of visual detail, a Kiera Knightley surprise, and the tacky impulses of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Walt Disney Studios
Director: Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Ashleigh Powell, based on the short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the Nutcracker Ballet, by Marius Petipa
Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Ellie Bamber, Matthew Macfadyen and Morgan Freeman
Rated PG / 1 hour, 39 minutes / 1.85:1
November 9, 2018
(out of four)
If you ever wanted to see what a maximalist live-action version of a Thomas Kinkade painting would look like, boy have I got the movie for you.
Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the kind of film that can't tell the difference between beautiful and tacky. It certainly didn't spare any effort blurring the distinction; it is nothing if not an elaborate piece of work. Every moment of this thing was designed to within an inch of its life, down to every follicle of facial hair. It has earned the award for most production design, most art direction, most costume design, most set decoration, most makeup and hairstyling.
As a general rule, a movie comes alive in its details - the finer the better. In Nutcracker's case, there's so much detail it seems to exist for its own sake, and strangles the life out of the very world it's trying to breathe into existence. What is intended to be ornate instead comes across as desperate. It's the type of movie all too eager to show off - or justify, rather - its nine-figure budget, which it uses to compensate for its lack of ideas.
All those expensive sets and colorful locations mostly just sit there on screen doing very little work. The movie has a look but lacks an aesthetic. There's nothing here but decoration and frosting. The special effects and animation, meanwhile, are exhaustively put to work in sequences and settings that play like the worst version of Tim Burton. And that's more than just a reference point - the degree to which this movie seems indebted to Burton's garish Alice in Wonderland is disheartening, and yet considering the circumstances it makes sense. Alice grossed over $1 billion worldwide (I know!) and set in motion a whole string of big-budget fairy-tale adaptations by Disney, including but not limited to those depressing live-action adaptations of the studio's own animated classics. Four Realms doesn't quite fall under that category - that is, unless you really want to stretch and connect it to the Nutcracker sequence from Fantasia, which would put this more in line with the studio's 2010 live-action Sorcerer's Apprentice that everyone has already forgotten.
Sadly, we don't even know who to blame. This is the rare instance of a movie having two credited directors who were not a collaborative directorial team. (For example, even for such a public firing as Bryan Singer's from Bohemian Rhapsody, in which he was replaced by Dexter Fletcher well into production, still resulted in Singer being given the sole director credit.) Nutcracker was Lasse Hallström's film originally, but Joe Johnston took over for reshoots and effects sequences, with the two ultimately sharing the directing credit. Which is a sensible enough decision; surely no one would want full credit for this thing. Better to share the blame.
Still, it's not hard to figure out, given the film's actual production timeline, that Hallström was the primary directorial voice here, with Johnston coming on board and trying to follow through on what was in place as well as he could. That Lasse Hallström mostly kinda sucks as a filmmaker makes it easy to lay this movie's failure at his feet ... but then again, he mostly kinda sucks in ways completely antithetical to a movie like this. He is the classical Weinstein-era Miramax house director who specializes in deeply respectable mediocrities like An Unfinished Life, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News. A grotesquely lavish eyesore like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms? It's an unexpected shift, to say the least. The result may be worse but I respect the effort a lot more.
Having said that, retrospectively I would have preferred to see a version directed by Johnston alone - because at least he's a filmmaker who understands and enjoys genre, with the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer, The Wolfman and Jumanji under his belt. (Incidentally, Johnston has also been tapped by Netflix to direct the first installment of another Chronicles of Narnia adaptation.)
But together, the unlikely and accidental pairing of Hallström and Johnston has resulted in something resembling a Baz Luhrmann monstrosity, only without the benefit of Baz Luhrmann's idiosyncratic vision. Which also speaks to something that studios so often fail to understand: Though it requires their resources and funding to mount such a big production, the film itself requires someone with the artistic sensibility and point of view to give it purpose. Spending a bunch of money on a lot of talented craftspeople only guarantees that we will see a lot of expensive work represented on screen - not that that work will be held together by any unifying vision. What I mean to say is, I can't imagine what could possibly have convinced Disney, from Hallström's decades-long track record, that he was the type of director who could transform this type of production into an interesting or personal movie. Although I guess by now that point is self-evident.
Based on various Nutcracker sources, Four Realms begins in Victorian England as the Stahlbaum family sets out to attend the annual Christmas party hosted by Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), godfather to the Stahlbaum daughters Louise (Ellie Bamber) and Clara (Interstellar's Mackenzie Foy) and son Fritz (The Childhood of a Leader's Tom Sweet). The oldest and the youngest of the children are almost hilariously irrelevant to the film's overall scope, as the entire story revolves around Clara. The last gift she received from her late mother was a handcrafted egg that requires a special type of key to unlock. In her hunt for that key, she quite accidentally stumbles outside, where it's suddenly daytime and suddenly snowy. She's been transported to a fantasy world, Narnia-like, split up into various realms. (Four of them, to be exact.) Her mother, turns out, was the queen of this kingdom, which makes Clara a princess. Only the kingdom is now, in the Queen's absence, under threat from the dark forces of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who oversees the Land of Amusements. Or so we're told.
Clara makes her way through that realm's many dangers by the skin of her teeth and gets herself established in the palace, where the the heads of the other three realms - The Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Shiver (Richard E. Grant), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) - welcome her with open arms. From there we learn all about the fraught political situation that Queen Marie's absence has left for everyone else to clean up, and the presumptive forces of good (led by Sugar Plum) put plans into motion to take down Mother Ginger once and for all.
Needless to say, the situation isn't quite as simple as Clara first understands it. And if you don't mind the spoiler, it should be noted that - to my great surprise - Knightley makes one hell of a villain. When I first saw the trailer, all that could be gleaned about her performance was that she was using an affected, high-pitched, baby-ish voice that could have gone disastrously wrong. Instead, she is by far the film's highlight; the horny mischievousness of her body language and line readings (and all the various unwritten or unspoken connotations they contain) are an unexpected delight. Knightley's performance is so good it almost makes me want to forgive the film's perpetual missteps; instead, I just have to lament that she wasn't put to use in a better movie.
There's a climactic sequence that bounces back and forth between two simultaneous (and equally important) events, and the way this supposedly urgent drama plays out is so ineffectual as to be meaningless. It's like seeing a duet between two singers singing completely different songs. (Or, perhaps, like two directors directing different movies.) The pieces have been put into place well enough, but there's just no music or rhythm to the interaction of the two segments - no interplay, no wit, and in one case it seems there was barely any idea what, on a micro level, is supposed to be happening. This is the climax of the movie! Everything has come down to this! And yet it sputters to its obligatory conclusion, mostly because it has no choice. That's sort of the problem in a nutshell: There is a lot happening in this movie - and a lot to look at, and a lot of places to go, and a lot of characters to know - and yet no one ever figured out what to do with it all, or why.