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All the splendor of CGI and Tchaikovsky can’t crack this nut. It’s a holiday movie fiasco.

The Tales of Hoffmann

Sugar Plum steals the key and the show
Sugar Plum steals the key and the show

Sometimes, as the end credits roll, you have to figure it must’ve read great on paper and something got lost in the translation to the big screen. Such is the case here, as what transpires during the course of 99 minutes is an inexplicable hatchet job on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite — even the most famous movements are truncated into mere snippets in order to keep the sloppy and unconvincing narrative moving toward its obligatory ending of familial reconciliation — that’s integrated into what essentially is a wholly-new sequel to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

By way of catch-up, that original story centered around a young girl named Marie Stahlbaum and a cursed Nutcracker who, in true fairy tale fashion, turns into a handsome prince. In this new story of the Four Realms, a woman named Marie has died, leaving behind three children and a husband who seems more common than royal.

As it happens, though, Marie was indeed Queen Marie in that fairy tale world of toy dolls come to life. One of her two daughters, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar), seems to be having the hardest time adapting to the world without her mother and she seeks comfort in a Christmas gift left to her by Marie. It’s a decorative egg with a note from Marie: “Everything you need is inside.” But the key to unlock the egg is missing and Clara embarks on an adventure to find the key, open the egg and... Well...

What follows is a confused cherry-picking of elements from Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Tchaikovsky and Disney. This mother Marie — a dreamer and an inventor — is married to a man with the surname Stahlbaum, so her connection to that Nutcracker prince and its timeline is garbled. As is the appearance of Marie’s inventor godfather, Drosselmeyer, here played by Morgan Freeman (in a role akin to Lucius Fox in the Dark Knight Trilogy). Maybe it’s simply a case of being too clever for its own good, but The Nutcracker and the Four Realms clumsily attempts to wrap the fairy tale aspects of The Nutcracker into a story of girl power and coming of age in Victorian England, all wrapped in what should be a lavish production uplifted by the music of the perennial holiday favorite.

Clara in Winter Wonderland

The empowerment angle here tracks closely with Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland. That’s a prime example of a movie that offers eyefuls of grand visuals in every frame while also maintaining narrative coherence and a sense of fun.

That’s not the case here. Even the Four Realms are quickly identified then nearly forgotten, dumped onto a heap of ideas that go nowhere. There’s the Land of Flowers, the Land of Sweets and the Land of Snowflakes. The names say it all because that’s as far as the movie takes things. Flowers in flower land, sweets in candy land. But what about that mysterious Fourth Realm? It’s a dark no-man’s land of ruin. And it apparently has no clever descriptor. But, at any rate, the realms are at war for some reason and the Fourth Realm is pegged as the evil instigator.

Sigh. It’s all a convoluted set-up to ultimately get Clara through a personal journey of growth and transformation, preparing her to reenter the real world as a well-adjusted and responsible teenager.

This all could very well have added up to a new Christmas season classic, maybe even a new fever dream along the lines of Fantasia. But no. It falls short. Far short.

Fractured Fairy Tale

Red flags fluttered when director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat) was replaced by Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) for extensive reshoots. Hallstrom was “busy.” Maybe so. But the end product here needed more thought all around and — perhaps — more time to actually flesh out some of the ideas and most certainly to allow for the music to have its space.

Instead, there’s not enough vested in caring about Clara and her journey. She’s a smart girl, technically-savvy, and her trek to trust herself should’ve been the foundation for a solid story that makes an emotional impact. Instead, it’s all as mechanical as the tin soldiers featured in the climactic War of the Realms.

Ultimately, “weightless” might very well be the single best word to describe Four Realms. And “weightless” was most certainly not the goal.

That weightlessness undermines all the effort put into the striking visuals, production design and a wildly terrific performance from Keira Knightley (The Pirates of the Caribbean) as Sugar Plum, a megalomaniacal cotton candy-haired doll come to life and seeking domination of the Four Realms. Holding her own is Mackenzie Foy; her future is bright and there will be more strong roles for her, no doubt.