If Tim Burton and Sam Raimi had a child, and they raised that child on nothing but LSD and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, that child could feasibly grow up to direct “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” a film so wild in its every creative decision that it almost succeeds through sheer ridiculous force alone. At different moments, it recalls any number of films, from “The Chronicles of Narnia” to “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Santa Clause 2,” but it more often than not dances away to another lunatic sequence before you can put your finger on what it’s causing you to remember. If we were to judge the film on the number of jaw-dropping “WTF” moments alone, this newest “Nutcracker” might earn a pass.
Unfortunately, we must also judge it by the characters and their uniform flatness, the underdeveloped story and performances that are, more often than not, memorable for all the wrong reasons. This doesn’t include star Mackenzie Foy (“Interstellar”) who leads the film as Clara, a young girl who finds herself whisked away to the magical land of the Four Realms while trying to unlock a mysterious box left to her by her late mother. Where so much of “The Nutcracker” relies on strange gimmicks and visual splendor to keep its audience’s attention, there’s genuine emotion and charm to Foy’s performance that keeps her watchable.
The rest of the cast, however, is best summed up by Keira Knightley’s (“Collateral Beauty”) turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy, the leader of the Land of Amusements. As with the rest of “Nutcracker,” Knightley’s performance is so bizarre that it nearly works — at the least, you’re kept wondering why she thought that voice was a good idea in the first place and why no one stepped in to tell her she sounds like Moaning Myrtle on helium — but as with the rest of “Nutcracker,” there’s nothing underneath to keep it interesting. She’s not funny or complex, and the dramatic turn her character winds up taking is completely unearned.
Similarly weak writing abounds, as even Clara falls prey to an arc that doesn’t change her so much as it affirms what we already knew about her. She begins “Nutcracker” as an inventive young woman confident in her mechanical skill, and for all the story’s talk about using what makes her special, she never wavers in that confidence. If she is meant to be recovering from her mother’s death, the closest thing to an alternative arc we’re given, then there’s no focus lent to that goal. It’s a forced “believe in yourself” lesson that’s never convincing for all Foy’s talents and is communicated in the same way as “Kung Fu Panda” virtually verbatim.
The one stalwartly good aspect is the visuals. While the effects will likely date themselves within a few years, the production design is breathtaking from top to bottom and there are a couple smart visual homages to other films, including a beautiful send-up to the “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” segment of “Fantasia.” Some of the costumes are sillier than others — Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze worked him over with a lead pipe and Eugenio Derbez (“Geostorm”) looks like a Fox News anchor’s idea of what will happen if you smoke pot even once — but for the vast majority of “Nutcracker,” they’re ravishing.
The rest of “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” must rely on its oddness to make it work, and while scenes of Keira Knightley eating the cotton candy that grows in place of her hair are certainly interesting, they hardly make it watchable. For that, it must rely on what actually counts — the story, the characters, the themes — yet in all these areas, the film is lacking. Maybe younger audiences will gravitate towards the bright colors and quirky characters, but that kind of surface-level enjoyment only lasts until the next movie that relies on those exact same things.