If you've been longing to see a movie with Dame Helen Mirren cracking a bullwhip, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is your must-see movie of the fall.
Otherwise, you might come away completely bewildered by this, the first of Disney's high-profile releases for the holiday season. Two radically different directorsLasse Hallstrom ( My Life as a Dog ) and Joe Johnston ( Captain America: The First Avenger ) are credited with helming the film, and though the studio maintains that Johnston shot material that Hallstrom's schedule wouldn't allow, a tonal shift in the third act suggests
studio nervousness had a hand in creating such an uneven product. Both last year's Justice League and this year's Solo: A Star Wars Story both demonstrated that replacement directors are often the sign of a troubled production.
The film is lovely to look at, even if numerous stylistic elements seem borrowed from elsewhere...an ever-present owl brings to mind Harry Potter, while some rather disturbing harlequins evoke late-Tim Burton, as does a frequently implemented Danny Elfmanish-children's chorus in the background vocals. One gag even seems lifted from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
When young Londoner Clara ( Mackenzie Foy ) attends a posh party at the home of her godfather Dosselmeyer ( Morgan Freeman ) the same night she's received one last mysterious Christmas gift from her recently-deceased mother, she's transported to the Four Realms of the title. She soon learns that her late mother made that same journey before, before being enlisted by the Sugar Plum Fairy ( Keira Knightley ) in a battle against Mother Ginger ( the aforementioned Mirren ), ruler of the Fourth Realm, the Land of Amusements.
Visual delights abound here, especially when the film references the iconography we connect with the legendary ballet or the Fantasia sequence that utilized its music; the film includes a brief dance interlude, and the production design calls attention to effervescent mushrooms growing on the forest floor; Sugar Plum's palace similarly evokes St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.Tchaikovsky's ballet score provides much of the film's atmospheric music as well.
But it is still difficult to get around the third act, when a large-scale battle has broken out and we're treated to the bizarre sight of Clara suddenly becoming adept at kick-boxing the villain's tin soldiers into oblivion. Nutcracker and the Four Realms' most obvious pleasures stem from the ballet, so why not just see the ballet, or one of countless other film adaptations where the filmmakers had more faith in their source material? Hoffman's original story is supposed to be the prime inspiration here but even so, the screenplay strays far from the original.
Younger audiences might likely respond to the visuals and appreciate the alterations to the story. But one other note: There's a monster made up of hundreds of mice…if that idea grosses you out, stay far, far away.