The opening scene of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms features teenage girl Clara (Mackenzie Foy) showing her younger brother how to catch a mouse using a Rube Goldberg machine, and there’s probably no better metaphor for the film that follows than that demonstration of mechanical engineering. As impressive as the machinations of any large studio project are in producing eminently watchable and often entertaining films, there can be a science to it, a reliable formula that won’t necessarily produce a hit but will make something coherent and familiar built upon the shoulders of what came before. Disney as late has been the master of this notion with their string of competently made live-action remakes of their most popular animated features, but The Nutcracker is a brand in the public domain that many are aware of but few are diehard fans of, making it a prime candidate for Disney to repackage as something in line with what they’ve done before while still being able to simultaneously claim it as new and nostalgic all at once. And while the result isn’t awful, it does nothing to justify its existence either.
Bearing only superficial resemblance to the ballet, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms cribs very heavily from Narnia and the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, both in terms of plot structure and aesthetic. Clara, grieving the loss of her mother, is forcibly made to attend a Christmas Eve party by her appearance-obsessed father, but while there she stumbles her way into the Four Realms, a magical world that her mother apparently once ruled over as queen. Three realms are at war with the ostracized fourth, led by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, whom I hope was very well compensated for this), and Clara finds herself leading the charge against an opponent who holds a literal key to Clara’s connection to her mother. Oh, and the titular Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight) is tagging along too, for no real reason other than to give Clara someone to talk to and to justify the branding.
What feels so cynical about all this is less how much of the imagery feels like recycled concept art from other Disney productions than how much the film seems to think you’re supposed to care about its convoluted worldbuilding. Almost an entire half of the film is devoted to establishing the Four Realms, who their leaders are, how Clara’s mom fits into everything, and why Clara supposedly matters so much, yet it all feels so shallow and tedious because we aren’t informed of these things through character interactions but through extensive exposition that still ultimately boils down to the nice people are good and the mean people are bad. Even a late-in-the-game revelation surrounding Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley) feels trite and predictable, and her character spends so much time being the mouthpiece for the screenwriters in explaining everything that this big twist holds absolutely no dramatic weight.
Even Clara, easily the most fully realized character in this whole shallow fantasy, feels calculatingly designed to be the empowered princess protagonist of the twenty-first century. She’s passionate about science and is emotionally vulnerable about her dead mom, but she’s also brave and determined and… just not terribly interesting. Her journey through the Four Realms is supposedly a way for her to feel reconnected to her mother, but the way in which that arc resolves is a stretch at best, and her proclivity toward science consistently butts heads with the fact that she is constantly surrounded by magic that defies basic reason. She is never incredulous of her situation, which undermines what is supposedly her defining character trait for the sake of being a Strong Female Character™ with only the illusion of depth.
This isn’t to say that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is entirely unwatchable, but there’s also no real reason to care about it, especially if you’re already a fan of the films it’s borrowing from so heavily. Perhaps a better analogy for Disney’s The Nutcracker would be that of a clockwork soldier. It’s functional and plods along at a good clip, but it’s entirely mechanical and without soul, marching with no purpose other than to provide momentary distraction when there is nothing else to bother with. But surely there’s something else playing in your local theater worth more bother than this.