The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Is a Self-Loathing Parade of Gewgaws

If only these sugar plums learned to love themselves!

Keira Knightley as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mackenzie Foy as Clara.
Keira Knightley is the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mackenzie Foy is Clara in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Laurie Sparham for Disney Enterprises

The new fantasy adventure The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t play fair. It asks all who enter to check their cynicism at the door, to journey through the Land of Sweets atop a horse named Jingles, and to be patient until we finally reach a long-awaited father-daughter dance. The movie wears innocence as ballgown and protective armor, its aggressive guilelessness both fanciful and defensive. Its visual gifts to the audience are admittedly prodigious and include a Christmas tree reveal, a ball and a pageant, and a CGI extravaganza of toys come to life. (“That’s a bit much,” you can hear the Capitol dwellers of Panem jealously sniff about these dresses.) But The Nutcracker’s onslaught of wholesomeness also lays waste to anything that might stand in its way, leaving it crushed under the boot heels of its tin soldiers. I don’t believe any of the characters, including the ones that are parents, have ever fucked. In fact, the only character who shows a hint of (campy) libido is condemned to nonexistence.

It’s not that I think this adaptation of the perennial Yuletide ballet needs sex. Directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston have created, in some ways, a boredom-proof movie, so baroque and wonderfully gaudy are its outfits, sets, and spectacles. But The Nutcracker also feels like it was begotten by a spreadsheet rather than a human mind, from its IP-based greenlighting to its wasted cast of all-stars (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, ballerina Misty Copeland) and from its thoroughly predictable plotting to its self-contradictory feminist message. (The bookworms of yore are now expected to be future STEM majors with a knack for fixing mechanical woes, but are still supposed to look picture-perfect in a series of lavish frocks—even though caring about clothes is beneath them because they’re smart unlike those other girls, OK?)

The older sister that The Nutcracker clearly aspires to be is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which also found a misfit teenage girl in Victorian England escape to a whimsical alternate universe, then become its savior. Here, that girl, Clara, is played by Mackenzie Foy (a 17-year-old American badly affecting a posh accent, but with those preternaturally wise eyes, she’s otherwise well cast as someone who doesn’t quite make sense in the human world). Taking place on Christmas Eve, there’s nothing quite believable about The Nutcracker—including an eyepatched Morgan Freeman as the world’s most extroverted inventor, throwing London’s most opulent holiday party—until we get to the Four Realms. Attired beehive to toe in sparkling lavender, the Sugar Plum Fairy (a hilariously baby-voiced Knightley, channeling Marie Antoinette by way of Marilyn Monroe) fills Clara in on what’s been happening in toy land. Mother Ginger (Mirren), ruler of the Land of Amusements, is trying to take over the other three realms. As the daughter of the woman who brought the toys to life, it’s up to Clara to enforce the peace that her recently deceased mother would have imposed. That involves retrieving a key that Mother Ginger’s mouse minion stole—a key that would also open the locked metal egg that Clara’s mom left as the girl’s only inheritance. (If this synopsis is hard to follow and not a little hallucinogenic, rest assured: There is so much more overwhelming nonsense I’ve left as surprises for viewers.)

Written by Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy (yes, that one), The Nutcracker is the kind of movie whose emotional beats you resent because they fall flatter than a sewer grate and slow down an otherwise briskly paced story. Its protagonist doesn’t have enough of a personality to support a character arc, and its villainess’s motivations keep changing by the second, even in her “this is why I’m bad” speech. Clara’s best friend in the Four Realms, a Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight), has even less of, well, anything. Playing the Snow King and the Flower King, respectively, Richard E. Grant and Eugenio Derbez, two comic crackerjacks, have few lines and even fewer of their facial features visible behind elaborate (albeit splendid) costumes.

And yet, for all its many faults as a movie and a commercial product, I’m so glad I got to visit the Four Realms for its glittery formalwear, its bear-monsters made of a thousand mice, its truly astounding living matryoshka dolls jumping out of one another. The movie’s interlude, in which the action more or less stops for a performance by Copeland, is also lovely. The brutal efficiency of the priss factory ultimately demands respect. If only it didn’t also cringe so obviously at itself.