Slow torture for kids and grownups alike, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms gives a bad name to the very concept of family entertainment. What went wrong? Where to begin?!? On the surface, this Disney debacle seems like a no-brainer for the holidays: It’s an 1816 gothic fairytale by E.T.A. Hoffman and a ballet with music by Tchaikovsky. What we have here is simply a botch job with two directors — Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) for starters and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) for reshoots — and absolutely no personality of its own. Dance fans can look forward to a pair of all-too-brief appearances, including one over the end credits, from ballet great Misty Copeland. After that, composer James Newton Howard smothers the sounds of this perennial seasonal favorite in aural swill.
It’s Christmas Eve in in Victorian London, and clever Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy), the 14-year-old embodiment of female empowerment, is in a funk. Her mum has recently died (there goes Disney again with the dead parent thing) and neither Clara nor her siblings are in the mood to follow their mopey dad (Matthew Macfadyen) to a lavish Christmas ball. Not to mention that her father insists she wear dead mum’s dress — creepy, right? Mum has left gifts behind for her children. Clara gets an egg-shaped box with no key to open it. Frustrating, yes? So is mum’s note: “Everything you need is inside.” At the party, the young woman seeks out her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman in paycheck mode), a toymaker who zaps her into another dimension. If only he could zap audiences out of the multiplex.
Any hope that things will pick up are quickly dashed when Clara enters “the four realms,” where it turns out her mum was once queen. Hope you like headache-inducing vistas that can leave you in a digitally induced coma! And good luck figuring out why the leaders of the realms are at war with each other! Searching for answers, Clara teams up with a Nutcracker soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), and an animated mouse. It seems like Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, reduced to mugging) is evil. Or maybe it’s flower-covered Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) or icy Shiver (Richard E. Grant)? Or how about Sugar Plum, who seems to be having a squeaky-voiced meltdown in the welcome distraction of Keira Knightley’s helium-high portrayal of toxic cotton candy.
Any description of what follows, including a battle of tin soldiers, clowns on the attack and a swarm of killer mice, would only evoke other, much better films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. What this Nutcracker offers is so overproduced, so mechanical and so indigestibly whimsical that it won’t just be two-year-olds who want to puke it up. Clara is told that the four realms represent a parallel world where time moves faster. Not in this movie, which slows to a crawl in the act of boring you breathless.