Director: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Macfadyen, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Richard E. Grant
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This festive Disney fairytale is co-directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston. That unusual co-credit might initially look like a fascinating collaboration between two distinctive filmmakers, but the reality is much more depressing. In fact, while Hallstrom directed the majority of the film, Johnston was brought in for a month of script-doctored reshoots. That level of behind-the-scenes turmoil (traditionally referred to as a troubled production) goes some way to explaining why the finished film is ultimately so unsatisfying, despite a handful of strong elements.
Set in a chocolate box fantasy version of Victorian London, the film stars Mackenzie Foy as Clara, a science-mad young woman who has recently lost her mother (Anna Madeley). On Christmas Eve, her forlorn father (Matthew Macfadyen, the go-to actor for melancholy) gives her a present from her late mother, an egg-shaped box that is missing its key.
After quizzing her inventor-slash-godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, on top twinkly-eyed form) about the key, Clara follows a string with her name on it and finds herself in a magical kingdom where the land is divided into four realms and everyone thinks she’s a princess. Teaming up with courteous nutcracker soldier Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), Clara learns that circus tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) has declared war on the other three realms, so she allies herself with the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Shiver (Richard E Grant) and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), regents of the lands of Sweets, Snowflakes and Flowers, respectively.
Mackenzie Foy makes a solid lead and the fact that she’s a science genius is a nice touch (her opening live-action version of the Mousetrap game is an early highlight), although given her brainbox credentials, it takes her a ridiculously long time to work out the true meaning of her mother’s not-too-cryptic message that comes with the egg.
The main reason to see the film is Knightley’s delightful performance as Sugar Plum. With her breathy, Marilyn-esque voice and a previously unsuspected gift for high camp, Knightley looks like she’s having approximately 20 times more fun than everyone else and she steals the film as a result.
Indeed, the other actors are largely wasted, especially Richard E. Grant, who barely gets any lines and is buried under a clumsy costume and make-up combo that makes him look like Batman & Robin’s Mr. Freeze. Even Helen Mirren, supposedly the villain of the piece, gets remarkably little screen time. While Disney deserves praise for its diverse casting with Fowora-Knight, it’s a shame that it makes their relationship entirely chaste, while his oft-repeated line of “I know my place” seems misguided at best and should have been cut.
The main problem is the poorly thought out plot, which fudges the details on the other realms (you’ll remember a forest and a castle and that’s it) and fails to establish anything resembling stakes, so there’s never any sense of danger. As a result, the whole thing feels oddly empty, like it’s just going through the motions. Ironically, the film literally does exactly that when it attempts to shoe-horn in a bit of decorative ballet (performed by prima donna Misty Copeland), although it quickly abandons that idea and cuts to something else instead.
As for the production design, it’s largely both derivative and over-stuffed, with much of it recalling the in-your-face busyness of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Still, it does have its moments, most notably a beautifully animated CGI mouse (a proper little scene-stealer) and the monstrous Mouse King, an original, scary creature made up entirely of scurrying rodents. Because nothing says Christmas like a giant mouse monster.