‘Nutcracker’ falls short of high expectations

In Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” the main character is given a locked Fabergé egg and a note saying, “All that you need is inside”. Later in the film, she finds the key and opens the egg to find that it is, in fact, empty, save for a small music box. While the film turns this into one of those “you had the magic in yourself all along” moments. it stands as a great metaphor for the film itself. The outside is bedazzled with excess extravagance, but the inside holds little, if any, substance.

In this retelling of the classic ballet, Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is an inventive young girl who is celebrating her first Christmas since her mother’s passing. She travels with her family to her Godfather’s extravagant party, where she receives a strange gift. The gift Narnia’s her away to the strange world of the four realms, where it seems the realm of amusement is at war with the other three realms. Clara needs to resolve the struggle and get back home to repair her semi-fractured relationship with her father.

Engaging with a well-trodden story can still be entertaining if the story is delivered in a unique way (yes, I’m an “Avatar” apologist). “Nutcracker”, though, dances its way across story tropes, doing little to set its story apart from similar ones–the primary example being the aforementioned egg. Clara is surprised to find only a mirror minutes later and discover that she really has been the chosen one all along. This moment of discovery lacks a meaningful punch, as Clara’s self-doubt is established within the same scene that it is resolved. I couldn’t help but think of Po in “Kung Fu Panda” having a similarly tropey moment (“there is no secret ingredient”), however there is a sense of catharsis in that film because Po’s constant struggle with believing himself is deeply explored. In “Nutcracker,” the realization is surface level.

The film tries to wow you with its appearance, throwing extravagantly costumed characters at the screen faster than you can count. Once we get into the godfather’s ballroom, we have a hoard of fancy colonial English folks waltzing about the place like the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is the sickest beat of the century (it kind of is). This also marks one of the unfortunately few times the film uses the ballet’s iconic score. If that wasn’t enough wigs and baby powder for you, things really get bonkers once Clara enters the realms.

We meet the leaders of the three good realms of flowers, sweets and snowflakes. Each leader is decked from head to toe in remnants of their theme. Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) boasts a large pink dress and cotton candy hair, Hawthorne (Eugenia Derbez) has a bouquet crown and flowers leaping from between his lapels, and Shiver (Richard E. Grant) looks like an old man who stood outside too long on a December night in Chicago. Yet the title of the film probably should have been “Clara and Sugarplum Struggle for the Realm of Amusement” because we spend hardly any time in the other realms, and Shiver and Hawthorne become two of the many characters lost in the shuffle.

“Nutcracker” boasts an impressive cast, with Knightley and Derbez alongside Helen Mirren (Mother Ginger), Morgan Freeman (Godfather Drosselmeye) and legendary ballet dancer Misty Copeland who makes a cameo appearance as the Ballerina Princess. The film’s frequent use of seemingly faceless mobs leaves very little time for any of these accomplished performers to stand out. I almost forgot there is an actual Nutcracker character in this film, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, who seems to disappear for sections of the narrative. Knightley is the one who gets the most time in the spotlight. Her performance is comically cartoonish, which fits the mood of the film in some ways but is ultimately unmemorable.

When “Nutcracker” is released this November, it is either another sign that it is never too early to push Christmas or that someone saw this and realized it would stand no chance against the holiday competition so they released it over a month early. (I’d put my money on the latter).

The film seems to have a huge scope, traversing four realms and two realities while showing all the visual flair one could ask for. Yet the film never feels like a spectacle. The crowds are meaningless, the realms are scarcely seen, and the visuals try so hard to be interesting but ultimately fail. It’s all a façade, failing to hide the film’s shallow core.