There are a lot of things I see in this idea that might make sense for a Holiday movie. The opening is set at Christmas time, the motif uses the Nutcracker Ballet and music, and it is family friendly. Having seen the film however, I can’t really say who it is for. The music is incidental to the story, as is most of the Nutcracker story itself. This is a stand alone movie that is too weird for it’s own good. It lacks the charm to overcome it’s weaknesses and frankly, it is not very well acted.
Set in Victorian Times, this new telling of the Nutcracker focuses on a young girl named Clara, who is mourning her Mother but also trying to be a bit independent. The family dynamic suggests a close bond with her younger brother and older sister, but neither of them become a part of the fantasy here. Her widowed Father also mourns but in the style of keeping a stiff upper lip and conforming to expectations and appearances. This drives a wedge between the two of them which is more appropriate for a contemporary film than one set in the 19th Century. When Clara is lead into the fantasy Realms of the Nutcracker, it is then she discovers how her Mother created this world and brought it to life. The four realms are sometimes ignorant of the real world but at other times seem to be well aware of what is going on there. The world building in this fantasy makes very little sense and never seems consistent.
Morgan Freeman appears as Drosselmeyer, and in this story, he gives gifts and is an inventor, but not as good an inventor as Clara’s Mother or her. He is in the bookend segments of the film only. Occupying the main story, which involves a war between one of the realms and the others, is Keira Knightly as the Sugar Plum fairy and Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger. We at first do not understand what is at the base of the conflict, and at the end we are equally ignorant. The contrivances the story comes up with are just odd. The mouse king is not really a king, the evil is very unclear, and the ray gun that transforms toys into soldiers is ridiculous. The fact that it operates using the key that Clara is searching for is so forced as to make this film feel more mechanical than it intends to be.
No one in the movie is very good, with the exception of maybe Matthew Macfadyen as Clara’s father. Mirren gets little to do and Knightley overplays both the sweetness and the reveal. Jaden Fowora-Knight is well cast as the Nutcracker, because he is as wooden as you can get. He is a handsome young man with some potential but even this children’s story seems out of his grasp. Mackenzie Foy has the look that Clara needs but her skills are also a bit weak, She is trying to carry this whole production on her shoulders with her charm, and frankly that is an unfair assignment.
The production values on the film are impeccable however. This movie looks like a Christmas picture book and both the “real world” settings and the four realms are lavishly decorated and use color design in interesting ways. The CGI exteriors are picture perfect but the best things are the costumes and the practical set designs. There is a five minute segment where Clara watches an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker Ballet, and the stage craft there is the most inventive aspect of the film and it doesn’t use CGI at all. There is a stacking clown sequence that uses a combination of CGI and costumes to achieve it’s look and that was also worthy. Lasse Hallström with an assist from Joe Dante, directed this film. It reminds me a lot of the Barry Levinson misfire from 1992, “Toys”. Both have mildly interesting premises and are being sold as Family Holiday movies, but despite amazing art direction, they just don’t connect with an audience.