The latest in a long line of fantastical, unwieldy adaptations of classic fairy tales, Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is saddled, as one might expect, with the dullest of protagonists, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), an aristocratic teenager who finds herself transported into a magical kingdom during a Christmas party and stuck in the midst of a great conflict between several mystical forces. In keeping with the dictates of so many fairy tales and the cipher-like writing of Disney’s blockbuster adaptations of them, Clara is a blank slate, a lily-white vision of innocence whose only character trait is her grief over her dead mother. Naturally, upon arriving in the other world, Clara discovers that its denizens, all fairies and animated toys, regard her as a princess—and the heir apparent to their imaginative fantasyland, which was created and once ruled by her mother.
The breathless reactions of the kingdom’s subjects to Clara’s awkward attempts to relate to them regularly expose the young woman’s blandness, an impression that’s hard to shake given Foy’s flat line deliveries. Clara’s stilted disposition contrasts sharply with the campy personas of the other characters, particularly the regents of the realms within the kingdom that Clara unexpectedly inherits, from the flamboyant Flower King (Eugenio Derbez) to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley, speaking in a series of airy, falsetto wisps that bring to mind Elmo being strangled). And this awkward clash of performance styles only draws further attention to the dialogue, which dresses up endless exposition under a vague pretense of regal formality.
Visually, the film compensates for the two-dimensionality of its writing and acting. Disney’s fantasy extravaganzas of late have looked shockingly dated, boasting waxen computer animation that recalls the more primitive-looking CGI-addled productions of the early aughts. But the filmmakers here frequently turn that weakness into a strength; taking cues from its balletic inspiration, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms emphasizes the slightly plastic sheen and painterly colors of the animated toys. Costumes burst with color, from Sugar Plum’s wispy, cotton candy-colored hair to the blood-red splashes of the military dress that Clara wears in the film’s second half.
There are also impressive set pieces, as in the depiction of the dilapidated, mice-infested Realm of Amusements, a seceded area run by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). This dominion suggests a post-Chernobyl Pripyat, blanketed with a thick fog that obscures the rusting metal of various abandoned carnival rides. Within the region, Clara ends up confronted by Mother Ginger’s chief henchmen, a collection of matryoshka-doll clowns who disturbingly pop out of each other with the sickest of giggles. Unfortunately, the film succumbs to the predictability of Disney relying on war as a means of providing an ostensibly exciting narrative backbone to its contemporary fantasies, and, as a result, the beauty of such details is lost amid the grinding spectacle of toy soldiers sent in waves against Mother Ginger’s armies of mice and clowns.
Infinitely more rewarding is a sequence about a third of the way into the film in which Sugar Plum, while showing Clara around the kingdom, takes her to an effectively streamlined performance of Tchaikovsky’s two-act ballet. And for a few minutes, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms gives over to a performance that recalls The Red Shoes in its combination of well-choreographed dance, theatrical art direction, and the free possibilities of cinema.
Throughout the performance, backdrops raise around the ballerina (Misty Copeland), and the dancing is exemplary (of particular note are the dancers playing mice, who move in slinking, almost liquid, rolling motions that are punctuated by the jolts of angular limbs), with wild changes in lighting and animated flourishes—such as flowers that seem to bud within the stage floor—that mix the tactile with the impressionistic. There’s even a nod to Fantasia in a shot of the orchestra backlit into silhouette by reddish yellow light. The complete sequence cannot be more than six or seven minutes, but what it captures is so thrilling, imaginative, and technically impressive that one may wish that the entire film had restaged the entirely of Tchaikovsky’s ballet rather than reimagine it as an ultimately lifeless epic fantasy.