It would be very easy to be cynical about Disney’s lavish new adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’, which is nothing like the book in story or structure. Indeed, some might say that this is deeply generic – very twenty-first-century – Disney fare that has been tacked on to a beloved brand to halve promotional costs. That said, it takes a hardier soul than mine not to be wooed by The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ sugar plummy visual splendour.
As with the vast majority of Disney’s recent fairytale blockbusters, The Four Realms takes a great many cues from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Rather than following Hoffman’s 1812 plot, screenwriter Ashleigh Powell has taken its tone, twisted its themes and tagged on traditional narratives. Once again, Walt’s House of Mouse present the story of a young woman who is only able to come to terms with the recent loss of a parent on being thrust into the heart of a magical battle between good and evil. Throw in a touch of Maleficent and savvy viewers have this pegged.
Mackenzie Foy is the heroine here, playing whip-smart, assertive Clara Stahlbaum: a teen with a talent for clockwork engineering. Clara lives with her father (a bookending Matthew Macfadyen) and two siblings in the sort of snowscaped, picture-perfect Victorian London that has Charles Dickens turning in his grave on an annual basis. When, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Stahlbaum gifts his daughter with her mother’s last bequest – a small, silver egg – Clara is horrified to find that it is missing the key that will open it and thereafter reveal contents that, she is led to believe, will provide her with everything she could ever hope for. Identifying the egg’s maker as being her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, miscast), Clara takes it with her to the seasonal ball he is hosting that night.
What must already be clear to Nutcracker fans is just how ludicrously altered Hoffman’s wintery tale has been been for the film, which has been directed by Lasse Hallström and partially re-shot by Joe Johnston. Things continue to stray wildly as Clara finds herself accidentally wandering into Narnia whilst following a string upon which is attached her name. Except, this isn’t Narnia; it is a confusing sub-world dimension, divided into the Lands of Sweets, Amusements, Flowers and Snowflakes. Existent here are a curious collection of characters who were once toys but have been brought to life by a mysterious machine. As is always the way in fantasy features – albeit in this case with deficient motivation – a foe is rising and threatens all that is right Can Clara save the day? One hopes, and suspects, so.
Kiera Knightley and Helen Mirren co-star in the film, as the ditsy Sugar Plum Fairy and world-weary Mother Ginger respectively, with each bringing crucial fun and vigour to proceedings. Jack Whitehall and Omid Djalili have small comic roles, while Richard E. Grant is just about identifiable beneath a wealth of frosty costume. Although there is certainly no room here for critique of the production design of the world their characters inhabit – all dainty and gorgeously frocked – acrobatic clowns and candy floss can only do so much to distract the eye from communicating with the brain. Ultimately, Powell’s plot makes precious little sense under scrutiny, whilst her narrational flow raises not nearly enough distinction for audiences to remember it by.
Perhaps that is for the best, of course. With composer James Newton Howard borrowing heavily from Tchaikovsky in the score and prima ballerina Misty Copeland dazzling in a novel exposition sequence, it is likely that viewers will exit the film with an emotional resonance that will outweigh pithy matters of plot.