3/10 In 2010, Alice went back into Wonderland to discover an ungodly amount of money, the kind of money that, at the time, could put a movie into the upper stratosphere of all-time projects. Disney would send her back in 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass to find the well had almost completely dried.
Now, they’ve sent another clever girl into a more Christmas-themed Wonderland to discover that, no, really, there’s not much money in there anymore.
On Christmas Eve in Victorian England, Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is in mourning for her mother’s untimely death. To exacerbate matters, she’s left an egg-shaped puzzle in her mother’s will that, despite being the cleverest girl in all the land, she is unable to solve. Despite her continued brooding, she is forced to go to her Godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) ball. While there, Drosselmeyer sends her to the land of the four realms, a land of nutcracker soldiers and political turmoil that Stahlbaum is the princess of and that her egg puzzle is the key to saving.
The movie is pretty much everything you’d expect from a post-Alice in Wonderland Disney live-action movie. All these live-action remakes, from Beauty and the Beast (2017) to Snow White and the Huntsman, owe their origin to Tim Burton’s passion project, which came out of absolutely nowhere to become just the sixth film ever to gross $1 billion worldwide in 2010. 2018 has seen the 32nd through 36th movies get into 10 figures, but that’s inflation for you.
The movies made in Alice in Wonderland’s wake experimented at first with more mature themes – Snow White and the Huntsman – and role reversals – Maleficent – but have mostly stuck to tame, boring and soon-to-be extraordinarily racist recreations of their animated counterparts. When adapting The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, that’s not really an option, so they’ve gone back to the drawing board and come out with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, an ostensible sequel to the ballet that’s more-or-less just a Christmas-themed riff on Alice.
Just about everything in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is lifted directly from Alice in Wonderland, from its origin as a project to its extended plot, its lead character and emphasis on what a clever girl she is, its values and core conflicts, its distinct Britishness and much of its production design philosophy. It’s not exactly a poor guide, they are very similar stories, but the explicit lack of originality is exhausting for a movie that already feels quite played-out.
The movie even lifts some set pieces directly from the Lewis Carroll-inspired series, such as an extended sequence inside of the ballroom clock that feels ripped directly out of Looking Glass, in which the main antagonist is Father Time.
That’s another sequence that has a distinct “what else do you expect” feel — in order to shut up nitpicky viewers, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) takes Stahlbaum outside so she can physically see time moving slower in the real world. We’ve gotten to the point of cynicism about movies that nine-figure fantasy productions are dedicating entire scenes to scream into viewers’ faces to not take it so god damn literally. I accept no responsibility for this whatsoever.
It’s at least an ambitious production, with large-scale themes on Godhood and military-industrial complexes to chew on, and it does incorporate ballet in a meaningful way — ballet is used to introduce Stahlbaum to the world of The Nutcracker in much the same way Tchaikovsky used it to first introduce real viewers to the world in 1892. Knightley has an absolute blast as the villainous Sugar Plum — that’s technically a spoiler, but it’s so easy to see through her in the first place that it barely matters.
In 2016, Through the Looking Glass lost an estimated $70 million for Disney, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms could end up close to that number. It’s been compared to the biggest box office bombs in history after opening at just $20.4 million in early November against a budget of at least $120 million, and is still only up to $129.2 million worldwide after four weeks in release.
The pattern seems pretty clear to me — while remakes of actual classics like Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast can do well, trying to sell nostalgia with intellectual properties that people don’t actually remember doesn’t work out.
Maybe Disney should just stop dropping $120-$150 million on these things that all look terrible anyway, and they’d all be more financially viable, but what to I know.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.