Conceived just a smidge over two centuries ago, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” has been told and retold so many times over the years — as a ballet by Tchaikovsky, as a novel by Dumas, as a Christmas cartoon by Barbie — that we can reasonably conclude there’s no one right way to reinterpret the beloved classic. That said, there are certainly wrong answers, and Disney’s dazzlingly hollow, superficially PC live-action adaptation, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” veers dangerously close to blowing it, squandering a talented cast and some of the most spectacular design work this side of “My Fair Lady” on a version with precious little dance and even less chemistry.
Conceptually speaking, who better than Disney to make a definitive big-screen version of “The Nutcracker”? And yet, both the film’s title and the peculiar circumstances that led co-helmers Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston to share directing credit betray the soulless, overcalculated approach of this unwieldy tentpole-by-committee, which feels like a world-building scheme for some future Disneyland theme-park attraction (introducing yet another princess to be trotted out for parades), suggesting but never showing several spinoff-ready realms while rushing through a bellicose plot that centers on a giant battle between rebel mice and an army of tin soldiers.
To be fair, that war for control of the kingdom has its roots in Hoffmann’s original story. Just don’t be too surprised if writer Ashleigh Powell’s playfully revisionist approach — which unfolds more like a pitch meeting than a proper screenplay — recasts Mickey’s mouse cousins as the good guys in the epic battle for control of the land where Christmas toys come to life. In this version, the two parties have switched sides on account of a twist that makes a villain of one of the ballet’s sweetest characters.
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Powell also demotes the nutcracker himself (Jayden Fowora-Knight) from charming prince to chaste best friend to teenage Clara (Mackenzie Foy of “The Twilight Saga”), whom we meet in Victorian London, where the film opens: Whereas her siblings love to dance — in a running joke, even kid brother Fritz can hardly wait his turn — Clara prefers more serious pursuits, such as studying physics and tinkering with mechanical things. In this way, she is a lot like her late mother, Marie (Anna Madeley), who has bequeathed her a riddle in the form of a locked silver egg and the note, “Everything you need is inside.”
At the elaborate Christmas ball, Clara sneaks away from Papa (a forlorn-looking Matthew Macfadyen) to visit her godfather (Morgan Freeman) in his elaborate workshop, crowded with inventions, but none of his tools works on the egg. And so, while the holiday festivities spark the familiar swirls of Tchaikovsky’s unrivaled score, Clara has her own agenda to pursue, seeking out the missing key on a quest that will take her to an elaborate parallel dimension of sorts, where all the key characters of the classic “Nutcracker” tale await her.
You may have noticed that I used the word “elaborate” three times in the previous paragraph, and while I shall not repeat it again, feel free to insert the notion before every noun still to come, for that’s clearly the effect Disney was going for, all but overwhelming audiences with both the scale and the intricacy of this fantasy world. The rest feels like a cross between “Alice in Wonderland” — although Clara seems considerably less bewildered than Alice did, acting bravely at all times — and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” especially as she passes from an attractively wallpapered hallway into the snowy domain on the other end.
It is here that she encounters both the nutcracker and the mischievous rodent known as Mouserinks — whose oft-repeated name sounded like “Mouse Rex” to these ears, a moniker better suited to the monstrous form this new Mouse King takes when swept up in a swarm of his feral fellows (achieved by combining state-of-the-art particle animation with hip-hop dancer Lil Buck’s free-flowing, loose-jointed “jookin” choreography). That composite creature may be horrifying to small children and audiences none too fond of mice, and yet it’s the most stunning creative and technical innovation in a film that’s big on ideas but far too basic in their execution.
The mice live in the Fourth Realm, an ominous forest at the center of which stands a circus tent that Tim Burton might have dreamed up, presided over by the somewhat ghoulish Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), with her long doll lashes and cracked-porcelain face. Clara flees from there as fast as she can and into a lavish walled fortress, where she meets three regents who sorely miss her mother: glitter-encrusted Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) represents the Land of Flowers, icicle-bearded Shiver (Richard E. Grant) hails from the Land of Snowflakes, and the scene-stealing Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) presides over the Land of Sweets — a lavender-tinged, cotton-candy Marilyn who coos in a girlish Kristin Chenoweth-like voice.
Though individually cute, when this magical trio appear together on-screen at the same time, they look as incongruous as Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze in the much-maligned “Batman & Robin,” a movie whose garish sense of excess serves as the baseline for “The Nutcracker’s” over-the-top aesthetic. So much care has gone into each of the departments, from Guy Hendrix Dyas’ exquisite production design to Jenny Beavan’s micro-detailed costumes to composer James Newton Howard’s loving update of the Tchaikovsky score, and while any one of these elements might be tasteful in and of itself, it’s all too much to take in at once — the kind of overkill for which Liberace was known.
If only all that creativity might have served a simpler, more elegant narrative, as opposed to a meaningless war movie in which neither side represents any recognizable cause. Perhaps a generation of young girls will find inspiration in seeing Clara discover the strength she needs inside (Foy plays her newfound confidence quite convincingly) before charging off to battle like some cause-less Joan of Arc. But that comes at the expense of the inspiration the character has provided to generations of dancers. Here, the ballet — which serves as a “Fantasia”-themed interlude midway through the film (performed by the great Misty Copeland), and later is sprinkled over the end credits — has been edged to the margins. It’s as if Disney feared traditional dance numbers might not seem fresh enough to audiences, insisting instead on a boilerplate script composed of stale old clichés.
We could applaud the colorblind casting and female empowerment theme — or breathe a sigh of relief that the ballet’s stereotypical Arabian and Chinese sequences have been omitted — but Disney’s commitment to progressive representation goes no deeper than a festive dragée’s thin candy coating. Perhaps the studio meant to continue the post-“Frozen” theme that its heroines don’t need love interests to be fulfilled, although it’s a mistake to neuter “The Nutcracker’s” central romance. Doing so deprives Disney of a positive interracial couple (previously seen in “Pocahontas” and “The Princess and the Frog”) and undermines the advance made by casting a black actor in the title role.
It would be somewhat facile to blame the project’s shortcomings on the odd baton pass between Hallström (Hollywood’s preeminent merchant of treacle) and Johnston (a specialist in spectacle over substance), who oversaw the film’s extensive reshoots. But the blame belongs at the conceptual level. The Mouse King got greedy, seeing an opportunity to own a holiday classic. In the course of two centuries, “The Nutcracker” has suffered worse indignities (we’re looking at you, Barbie) and endured. At a time of near-daily disappointments, at least this one can claim to rank among the year’s loveliest let-downs.