Collaborating minds in the directing chair, two greats of the industry coming together, knocking heads and building something powerful. That should happen more, but the outcome is often less than stellar. Joe Johnston and Lasse Hallström learn the hard way with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a feature that wishes to inspire some of that Disney magic. All it can do is scrape the paste of Christmas cheer from the underbelly of projects past. Surely the men that brought us Jumanji and Hachi can mean us no harm. They are polite, reasonable, nice. They would never betray the qualities of Christmas for, say, cash, or the chance to work with Matthew Macfadyen.
But the sinister motives behind Hallström and Johnston are revealed rather soon. “It’s important to maintain traditions as a family,” and that it is. Our tradition is to watch Home Alone and to give ourselves indigestion by eating a box of fancy truffles. That is tradition. Not whatever The Nutcracker and the Four Realms tries to deploy with its dressed-up concoctions of Victorian high society. At least Hallström and Johnston understand the appeal of the period piece. They are thoroughly and tightly bound to the scale and scope, the grandiose terms of this style of living. That much is presented well, but what is the point? Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) detests that living, so to imply it as the tradition this family follows is a bit redundant, especially when there is no alternative to focus on.
But with those words, period piece, certain qualities are inevitable. Keira Knightley shows up, the mere whispering of the “p-word” is enough to entice her. Alongside Morgan Freeman, Richard E. Grant and Helen Mirren, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has plenty of strengths to it, but not a lot of interest. Its writing knocks the few moments of interest stone dead. It is uninspired and primitive, even for children. Writing can be complex, yet understood. Ashleigh Powell, who adapts the words of Marius Petipa’s original work, does not seem to understand that. Hallström and Johnston’s direction, and the performances provided here, make it feel as though the writing is talking down to its audience. We are not reciprocating any form of love or emotion of any form from this script, it is merely trundling through and hoping for some amazing spark of life to shine through.
“Science, mechanics, and a bit of luck” are the three tricks this leading character uses to fly the hot air balloon up into the air of their attic. That’s not how physics works, and it is not how The Nutcracker and the Four Realms operates. There are no mechanics within this film that can adapt or deliberate on the origins of the Nutcracker, but that wasn’t really the point of Johnston and Hallström’s efforts here, was it? They try, rather earnestly and sweetly, to make a film tailor-made to the Christmas classics. Whilst it is unfittingly tragic in its storyline and creatively bankrupt in other areas, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms will do much to tide over younger audiences, but nothing for those over the age of six.