The Nutcracker and the Four Realms review: The Disney formula strikes again, but it's luscious to a fault

Dir: Joe Johnston, Lasse Hallström; Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Misty Copeland, Morgan Freeman. Cert PG, 99 mins

The Disney empire is fuelled by formulas. It thrives on the mathematical precision with which its films can target its desired audience and elicit all the right responses: tears, excitement, obsessive dedication. Marvel Studios, 10 years down the line, is a machine now so well-oiled that the word “risk” is but a distant memory.

Disney’s live-action output, meanwhile, is less confident in its strides. One strategy has been to chase after the collective goodwill towards its animated past, greenlighting every classic for a live-action remake; the other has been to break down and reuse the narrative ingredients that made 2010’s Alice in Wonderland a $2bn success.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms firmly reflects the reverse engineering of the latter, to the point that its narrative structure is near identical: an intrepid, intellectually minded young woman (Mackenzie Foy’s Clara Stahlbaum) stumbles into a magical kingdom (the Four Realms) only to find it in terrible disarray, as it falls to her to fulfil her destiny and save the day. Here, the trouble stems from Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the tyrannical regent of the Fourth Realm, which was once known as the Land of Amusements.

The carnival has long gone quiet, though – it’s now home only to an army of mice and a macabre troupe of polichinelles (the little clowns from The Nutcracker ballet). Clara’s adventures, of course, eventually conclude in an epic battle between CG monstrosities.

And yet, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, directed by Joe Johnston and Lasse Hallström, enters the ring with one powerful advantage. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, or its later imitator Oz the Great and Powerful, the film draws from far less precious material: Tchaikovsky’s score to The Nutcracker ballet may be immediately recognisable, but its narrative isn’t.

The source material for the ballet, ETA Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and its later reworking, Alexandre Dumas’s The Story of a Nutcracker, are only dimly remembered. And so, there will be no fury if Fritz doesn’t break the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve, no pitchforks at dawn if Clara isn’t forced to watch a humanised representation of coffee pirouette for five minutes.

The Nutcracker doesn’t exist in our memories as a story, but as a feeling. It’s an image of the holidays as a time of joyous decadence, where Christmas trees are stacked with ornaments, and every tray is bursting with treats.

And despite its strict adherence to convention – Clara is such a cookie-cutter rebellious Disney heroine that she declares: “I don’t care what’s expected!” – The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is successful in capturing that spirit.

The visuals here are luscious to a fault: the busy, sombre tones of the Victorian-era Stahlbaum home; the baroque gaiety of the three untarnished realms – The Land of Flowers, The Land of Sweets, and The Land of Snowflakes; and the giant marionette that looms over the Fourth Realm, its wooden arms reaching out to Clara in a sinister invitation.

There’s a soft sentimentality in how the film treats Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen), a man who’s been hollowed by his wife’s death, or in her love interest, the gallant Nutcracker himself (Jayden Fowora-Knight).

There’s a more saccharine sweetness to be found, too, in Keira Knightley’s turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy; her raspy, high-pitched baby talk will prove divisive, but it suits the character and her insecurities much better than you might assume. Tchaikovsky’s score is present, but never obnoxiously used, and the film’s central ballet sequence, starring Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin, is filmed with a reverence not only for the skills of its performers, but for ballet’s own power as a storytelling device.

Indeed, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms may exist worlds away from the stories it takes inspiration from, so shaped is it by Disney’s formulas, but it hasn’t lost sight of its traditions.

The Nutcracker and the Four Reams is released in UK cinemas on 2 November