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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted November 3, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Over the past decade, it seems that most of Walt Disney Pictures has been divided into two halves. One is the half that bought up Marvel and LucasFilm, courting the preteen boy demographic on their way to worldwide domination. The other half is apparently run by some poor Disney exec still living in 2010.

Alice in Underland made a billion dollars worldwide because it was a fantasy CGI 3D blockbuster lucky enough to come out just as Avatar was winding down. Yet someone at Disney has refused to accept this explanation, and has attempted to replicate that success ever since. So it was that Disney gave us Frankenweenie — a Tim Burton family film that opened at number five in the box office and only dropped from there — and the doomed Alice sequel Into the Looking Glass, which cost so much and took in so little that it lost the studio an estimated $70 million.

And of course we have the live-action remakes. An uninterrupted conga line of live-action Disney remakes that nobody asked for, every one a CGI 3D spectacular made in rigid compliance with the Alice in Underland playbook. One of them is even an upcoming Dumbo remake directed by Tim Burton himself!

(Side note: No, I have not been accidentally mistyping the title these past eight years. It was Disney who very clearly stated that their uninspired, butt-ugly, in-name-only, garbage fire “adaptation” of Lewis Carroll’s work was set in Underland, whatever the hell that is.)

So now a remake of pretty much every noteworthy Disney animated film has either been produced or is in active development. None of them have done anywhere near as well as the first Alice. But is that going to stop the poor delusional Disney exec with short-term memory loss? Fuck no!

With The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney has branched out into applying their boring live-action remake formula to classic kids’ stories in the public domain. Seriously, how could anyone look at the trailer and not immediately notice it as yet another Alice in Underland ripoff?

Oh, and here’s more proof that somebody at Disney is still living in the previous decade: In 2009, somebody already tried making a big-budget 3D CGI blockbuster out of The Nutcracker. On a $90 million budget, it got a 0 percent Tomatometer and a $195,000 domestic gross (!!!), $16.1 million worldwide. Those numbers don’t lie.

Last but not least, if you stop the trailer at just the right moment, you can see the director named as one Lasse Hallstrom. Let me get this straight — the same guy who made Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and The Hundred-Foot Journey before bombing out of theaters with A Dog’s Purpose… made a multimillion-dollar CGI 3D action fantasy. I don’t know if that’s a lie or a bad idea, but it’s definitely bullshit. The only way that could possibly make sense would be if Hallstrom was a figurehead director acting in place of the studio hacks who were really making the picture.

Then the news came in that Hallstrom would not be available for 32 days of reshoots. This begs the question of why Hallstrom wouldn’t have scheduled for reshoots if everything was going according to plan, and why the reshoots needed enough time to shoot an entirely different movie altogether. Anyway, Joe Johnston was brought in to oversee the reshoots and his input was so extensive that he was allowed to split the director credit with Hallstrom — something the DGA practically never allows for directors who aren’t brothers or part of a long-established team.

That said, the journeyman blockbuster filmmaker Johnston is such an infinitely better fit for this style that it’s a wonder why Disney didn’t hire him to begin with. Because as it is, this looks like a huge confused mess waiting to happen.

But this is one of those times when I had already written so much about the movie that I just had to see it and see how bad it got. I’ll be honest, I went in expecting this to be a movie somehow worse than I had initially thought. (*coughPancough*). Instead I got a movie that was pretty much exactly what I had initially expected.

Right off the bat, this movie lets us know exactly where all the money and effort went. The movie opens with a long sweeping shot that I have to grudgingly admit was utterly marvelous. In fact, the visuals throughout look vibrant and colorful, with great care given to the sets and costumes. Even in the bleaker and scarier locations, we get a kind of “deranged carnival” theme that’s neatly disturbing. I was also very fond of the clockwork motif sprinkled throughout.

It’s nothing anywhere near the level of Cinderella (2015), but still far superior to Alice in Underland or Pan. Maybe compromise and put it on par with Beauty and the Beast (2017)? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Then of course we have the music. James Newton Howard turns in a masterful score, utilizing Tchaikovsky’s original music in classy and sensible ways. Mercifully, the filmmakers resist the temptation to give the songs lyrics as the previous attempt did. What’s perhaps even better, the filmmakers convey a massive exposition dump in the form of ballet, a neat little nod to the source medium.

…At least it would’ve been, if the main characters didn’t verbally tell us what we’re plainly seeing, in a nonsensical and self-defeating move. We’ll come back to that.

(Side note: The sound design loses points for an obnoxious and uninspired use of the Wilhelm Scream. I’m flat fucking done with filmmakers using that sound effect like they’re the first ones to discover it.)

Let’s move on to Clara, played by Mackenzie Foy. Her mother recently passed away (Disney movie, duh), and bequeathed a mechanical egg to be given to Clara on Christmas Eve. See, Clara is a book-smart girl with a passion for inventing things and she has no time or inclination for more superficial girly pastimes, so she has to learn to be herself in spite of being a misfit and blah blah blah. This is a Disney princess cliche at least as old as Belle, and her themes of courage and creativity are all trite and hackneyed beyond the point where anyone can take them seriously. That said, Drosselmeyer (here played by Morgan Freeman) has long been established as a toymaker/inventor/tinkerer/etc., so giving Clara something to bond over with her godfather was a smart move.

Anyway, long story short, Clara goes looking for the key to open the egg and finds herself in a magical kingdom split between four realms, and one is at war with the other three. So, instead of falling into a dream, Clara basically goes to Narnia. Not bad.

Then we learn that Clara’s mother was secretly the long-lost queen of this fantasy land, and Princess Clara is the only one who can set things right. And here we start running into problems.

Clara is a Mary Sue. There’s simply no way around it. Clara only barely has enough agency to keep the plot gliding on rails. Everything is handed to her and she’s the beloved center of everyone’s attention solely because her mother was somehow secretly a queen. She did nothing to earn her royal status, she never wanted it, and gaining it has no appreciable impact on her character. Granted, this is most likely a holdover from the dated source material, which was always a paper-thin fantasy for young girls without much of anything in the way of plot or motivation.

It certainly doesn’t help that Mackenzie Foy — bless her heart — doesn’t have the talent or charisma to imbue the character with any kind of personality. Heaven knows she’s trying, but the script is giving her nothing to work with. Ditto for Jayden Fowora-Knight as the eponymous Nutcracker. Hell, the only one in this whole cast who’s capable of transcending the material is freaking Helen Mirren, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to make an appreciable difference.

Morgan Freeman seems to be literally sleepwalking through this picture on his way to another paycheck. Keira Knightley turns in a career-worst performance, acting like Anne Hathaway’s White Queen on helium. Eugenio Derbez and Richard E. Grant play regents from two of the four realms, so it’s shocking and bewildering that the two are so ineffectual and spineless that they would have done more good on the cutting room floor. Likewise, Jack Whitehall and Omid Djalili play a couple of bumbling guards so useless and unfunny, I can’t even call them comic relief.

Last but not least, we have Matthew MacFayden as Clara’s grieving father, with Ellie Bamber and Tom Sweet as her siblings. File these actors under “Trying so hard, but the script is giving them shit.” It was honestly painful watching these actors physically straining to recite their canned dialogue as if they were a loving and tight-knit yet grief-stricken family.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Clara is oh-so-special and the center of all four realms because she’s her mother’s daughter while nobody in the entire fantasy kingdom seems to know that her siblings exist. Why? Because fuck them, I guess.

In case it hasn’t already been made clear, the script for this movie is flat fucking horrible. The plot is an uninspired retread of the Hero’s Journey. Every major twist is telegraphed in advance. Lines were clearly ADR’d in to accommodate the reshoots and changes in direction. At least half the dialogue is redundant, telling us things we already know or can plainly see in front of us. (“The rats! They’re crawling underneath us!” Yeah, no shit, princess.) This is definitely one of those cases in which the characters feel the compulsive need to verbally explain the plot every five minutes, a clear sign that the filmmakers do not respect our intelligence.

All of that said, what really sinks this movie beyond all hope of repair is the big third-act twist. First of all, of course it’s telegraphed well ahead of time. Second, it reverses the morality into something that is literally and completely the exact opposite of the source material. Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — it blows the world-building wide open. This big twist guarantees that we are never going to get any kind of an explanation regarding what happened to the Fourth Realm or what their deal is with the mice, which means that the primary catalyst for the entire conflict goes completely unexamined. Oh, and fourth, our villains subsequently trap our heroes in a place where they conveniently have every possible means of immediate escape. FAIL.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a disaster. There was very clearly some passion here for the source material, but it’s buried under thin plotting, useless characters, broken world-building, and mountains of the most outrageously bad exposition I’ve seen in a very long time. Yes, the visuals are impressive, but that doesn’t count for much when it still looks like any number of live-action Disney offerings in recent memory (the better ones, I admit).

I can’t even bring myself to be mad at this one, because it was so clearly doomed from the word “go”. Nobody should’ve bothered to make it and you shouldn’t bother to see it.