Between now and doomsday, it’s unlikely that we’ll get a movie that will defile the work of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffman more than 2010’s “The Nutcracker in 3D,” the movie that took the classic story and ballet and added Holocaust metaphors, Tim Rice-penned hip-hop lyrics, and a bizarre turn by Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein. But while it may not be quite as terrible, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” earns runner-up status on the list of worst cinematic “Nutcracker” misfires.
Maybe it was the massive reshoots — directorial credit is shared by Lasse Hallstrom, who shot the first go-round, and Joe Johnston — or perhaps the script by first-timer Ashleigh Powell was always muddled and convoluted, but the results are singularly dispiriting. Rather than harken back to an elegant, whimsical earlier period of history, this “Nutcracker” calls to mind the early 2010s, when the success of “Alice in Wonderland” led to a spate of fairy-tale characters being given swords and marched off to war with hordes of CG creatures.
By the time seven-foot-tall automaton tin soldiers attack a 30-foot robot woman whose skirts are a circus big top, all semblance of humanity or empathy has escaped the film, but the movie’s soul starts leaking out pretty early. The opening is promising enough: young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, “Interstellar”) hides in the attic studying physics and building Rube Goldberg-ian mousetraps as a way of dealing with her grief over her mother’s recent death. On Christmas Eve, her bereaved father (Matthew Macfadyen) gives the children presents that mom left for them; Clara gets a locked music box, but no key.
At a ball that evening, Clara ducks out to find Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who built the box. Later that night Drosselmeyer has the children follow strings around the house to find their presents; Clara’s string takes her into another dimension where she learns that her mother was a queen of four realms, each one ruled by sweet Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), flower-covered Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), icy Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). As Clara arrives, the latter seems to be waging war with the other three realms, and it’s up to Clara to fix the situation.
The movie then spends a sizable chunk of its real estate trying to explain its own premise. There’s a giant machine built by Clara’s mother that brings toys to life but can also turn people back into toys. Sugar Plum demonstrates — for no reason other than to explain how Clara can have adventures yet still return to Drosselmeyer’s party on time — that time moves much more quickly in the Four Realms than it does back on Earth. (Maybe this movie needed Einstein in it instead.)
Clara gets a tour of the realms (one made of candy, one of flowers, one of frost) that serves little purpose but to give costume designer Jenny Beavan, unquestionably the film’s MVP, a chance to shine. And then the movie stops dead in its tracks for Misty Copeland to do a dance about Clara’s mother, but even this dance doesn’t quite explain if Clara’s mother created this world, or discovered it, or what exactly.
Stopping the movie, at this point, is actually a kindness, and would that Copeland could have just starred in a more literal adaptation of the ballet. Her contributions are glorious and all-too-brief, but this interjection of dance and music at least gives her a moment to shine, alongside conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who appears in silhouette with his orchestra in a moment that seems right out of “Fantasia.” (That’s not the film’s only quotation: We open with a dizzying, aggressively artificial birds-eye swoop through Victorian London that is so obviously a piece of animation that it could have come directly from Robert Zemeckis’ awful motion-capture “A Christmas Carol.”)
The “child travels to a magical land and learns things” trope has been the basis of many beloved stories, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Phantom Tollbooth” to “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But it’s not a foolproof device, particularly when the magical land in question never makes much narrative sense; besides, how can the Four Realms be magical when the London where Clara already lives is so obviously a cartoon? Both the “real” world and the fake one are ugly, overdone, and lacking any visual connection to gravity let alone reality.
Also not helping matters are the barely sketched-in characters. Knightley scores at least a few fun moments as a bubbly pixie miles away from her usual dramatic leading ladies of literature, but Grant and Derbez are stuck letting their costumes do all the work, never mind that they provided some of this year’s finest comedy work in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “Overboard,” respectively.
If there’s a ballet company anywhere near you, they are most likely staging “The Nutcracker,” and they are no doubt hoping that the profits from this crowd-pleaser will get them through the rest of the year. Support them with the money you might otherwise have thrown at this misbegotten assault on the eyes.