This sparkly, spangly fantasy shares a name and some musical motifs with Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It also contains a dance sequence featuring Misty Copeland, a principal at American Ballet Theatre. But the bones of ETA Hoffmann’s original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, have been stripped down and reshaped, with grim efficiency, to fit the template of the Disney princess narrative.
The film introduces Clara (Mackenzie Foy) as she demonstrates her latest invention – some kind of Rube Goldberg mouse-ensnaring machine – and then broadens to waltz and whirl through a vision of kitsch Christmas Victoriana. A gift from her late mother leads her, with the help of her benevolent billionaire godfather (Morgan Freeman), to a magical kingdom where the realms are at war and the mice are terrifyingly well organised. It’s a laboriously escapist backdrop that, without the clear visual identity of, say, a Hogwarts or a Narnia, looks like a collision between a steampunk convention and one of those demented Christmas shops that hawks festive tat all year round.
There, she encounters the Nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight), surely the most minor character ever to lend his name to a film title, and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley, pitched several octaves higher than normal). The latter befriends Clara, warning her against the rebel leader of the fourth realm, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), and her personal militia of tumbling toy clowns. The fourth realm, the Land of Amusements, is by far the most distinctive. A derelict funfair, it borrows stylistically from early Tim Burton. Even here, though, there is a slightly panicky desperation to the cacophonous production design, and a sense of trying to distract from a plot as thin as spun sugar.