The Nutcracker and the Four Realms review – an irresistible festival of winter schmaltz

What frocks … Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightley.
What frocks … Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightley. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/AP

With this sumptuous ballet-lite live action retelling of The Nutcracker, Disney is having its feminist mince pie and eating it. The heroine here, fiercely independent and brave, follows the Disney-princess-gone-rogue template set by Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast. But princess fantasies and frothy frocks are a hard habit for Disney to kick. (And what frocks – Jenny Beavan’s costumes are ravishing.) Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren lead the starry cast, though everyone is upstaged by some terrific CGI mouse-acting. It’s like a Hollywood panto has come to town.

The production design presents a gorgeous Christmas-card vision of Victorian London where clever science-mad Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is grieving the death of her mother. On Christmas Eve she is given a mechanical silver egg, a final gift from her mum – but upsettingly the key is missing. Clara’s inventor godfather (Morgan Freeman) leads her to the key and a magical kingdom where toys, miraculously brought to life, greet her as royalty. Knightley is deliciously silly as Sugar Plum, the baby-voiced ruler of the Land of Sweets. Mirren looks a bit Vivienne Westwood as Mother Ginger, a wily old harridan terrorising the kingdom. When a pesky mouse runs off with her key, Clara teams up with the Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight).

I have to admit to being helplessly enchanted – or suckered – for the most part. There’s wit here and The Nutcracker will take you from zero to Christmas jumper in the opening sequence. What’s missing is the melancholy darkness of ETA Hoffmann’s story. Instead, schmaltz-merchant director Lasse Hallström tugs at the heartstrings and ladles on the syrup.

But credit to Disney for its ongoing commitment to diverse casting – the young black British actor Fowora-Knight is lovely as the Nutcracker, while the African American ballerina Misty Copeland, dancing in a handful of scenes, cuts through the sentimentality.

For dance fans, it’s not Christmas without The Nutcracker. I suspect in years to come TV schedulers may feel the same about this movie.