Disney has become such a franchise/sequel factory there's hesitation criticizing an attempt to try something even a little bit different with its live-action movies. But like "A Wrinkle in Time," "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" is an expensive but clunky fantasy, mashing together mythical elements but mostly hitting discordant notes.
Loosely based on the original 19th-century story and the Tchaikovsky ballet (including a cameo by ballerina Misty Copeland that, awkward as it is, winds up being a highlight), the film -- again, like "Wrinkle" -- centers on a teenage girl, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), who stumbles into a fantastic world that calls upon her to find the hero within.
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In this case, Clara is growing up in London, still grieving from the loss of her mother and providing little solace to her father (Matthew Macfadyen), who is equally confused as to how to express himself to his three children.
"The real world just doesn't make sense to me anymore," she says, right before being liberated from it.
On Christmas eve, Clara's dad presents the kids with gifts that their mother left behind, including a mysterious box for Clara. After a meeting with the wild-haired inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, briefly), she's whisked off to the Four Realms, a slightly less frenetic version of Wonderland, where she's hailed as a princess, her mother having been its Queen.
What ensues from there, though, is mostly a mess, one that largely squanders topnotch actors (Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant) hidden under flamboyant costumes. The exception -- in terms of injecting any pep into the proceedings -- would be Keira Knightley as Sugar Plum, one of the regents of the Four Realms, who mixes a breathless, elfin voice with a flighty manner that falls somewhere between animated doll and Marilyn Monroe.
Credited to dual directors Lasse Hallstrom ("A Dog's Purpose") and Joe Johnson ("Captain America: The First Avenger," who was brought in later to oversee reshoots), "The Nutcracker" feels like a project assembled by committee, with almost nary an original note, either in the story beats or the production design. Nor is there much jeopardy built into the action, which is abundant, though it's hard to tell exactly for what age group this PG-rated exercise is intended.
The young leads -- including the dashing Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight) who accompanies Clara on her quest -- are fine, but as drawn, their characters barely occupy one dimension. All that leaves, really, are those familiar strains composed by Tchaikovsky, a cute mouse and plenty of questions about pouring what looks like a lot of money into such a flimsy foundation.
Of course, Disney has the "Wreck-it Ralph" and "Mary Poppins" sequels waiting in the wings, so its holidays still figure to be reasonably festive. One suspects the studio will have to rely on those movies to stuff its stockings, after "The Nutcracker" makes what should be a quick exit from the theatrical realm.
"The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" premieres November 2 in the United States. It's rated PG.