Directed by Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
By Sandy DeVito, WitchQueen of Darkness
There isn't anything new here in a bare-bones narrative sense (they add some plotty stuff about Clara needing to find a key to unlock an egg her mother gave her posthumously, there's an easily-foreseeable twist 3/4ths of the way through), but there are a hundred tiny details that make this particular project subtly unique in the Disney canon, especially the Nutcracker himself, played wonderfully by the luminescent Jayden Fowora-Knight, and the quadrangle of women the film centers on; Mackenzie Foy is positively radiant, her bright eyes and erstwhile smile shining out through the screen, I will watch Helen in literally anything (gender-swapping her with the Rat King of the original story is neat), Keira Knightley gets to really chew the scenery and though we only get one scene with Clara's mother Marie (Anna Madeley) she is mentioned constantly by almost every other character, so her presence is constantly felt and her will is a driving force in the story. It rings a bit of Burton's Alice in Wonderland aesthetically, but it's a softer and more well-rounded project than that one; it's as sweet and as beautiful to look at as Christmas cookies for most of its run-time (I'm a huge admirer of Burton-favorite Colleen Atwood's work in general, but the fantastic Jenny Beavan--Mad Max: Fury Road!!--is a perfect choice for this world, creating clothes that are more like confections), with some oddball moments of uncanny that seem to be Joe Johnston's doing in particular. The film is co-directed by him and Lasse Hallström (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules), but I'm more familiar with Johnston's work, particularly his Wolfman reboot which I can't speak highly enough of. He has a sensibility for gothicism and those little moments weaved throughout this film were delightful to me; a giant unsettling animatronic Helen Mirren who doubles as a circus tent? I was loving that shit.
I would have enjoyed Morgan Freeman's Drosselmeyer more in the past than I did in the present, knowing what I know about him; the fact that he's supposed to be fatherly to Clara in the narrative just rings sort of gross when you've read about his creepy behavior towards women in general over the course of his career. I guess the good news is he's only in like two scenes. I loved that Matthew Macfadyen (definitely most well know as Darcy in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice) is Clara's father here; he really excels at looking sad and noble and English and sort of kind but out of his depth and that was exactly what that relatively small but very important role needed to do. Misty Copeland, noteworthy as the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer for ABT, has two incredibly lovely ballet numbers in this film that are worth the price of admission alone.
I don't expect this to be everyone's cup of tea, but I've been waiting for a big-budget, shamelessly-high-production-value adaptation of The Nutcracker story for a long time (when I was in high school I imagined creating a super goth version akin to American McGee's Alice), so this was definitely that peppermint-candy-cane sweet shit I wanted; a woman wrote the script as well (Ashleigh Powell, based on a story by E.T.A Hoffman), which reflects on the subtle character work in particular, and James Newton Howard's score finds clever ways to expound on the classic Tchaikovsky ballet, adding richness and emotion. I'd definitely be okay with a sequel. I'm already deep in my post-Halloween depression and it's only November 1st, so I can't begrudge myself any enjoyment wherever I find it. It's too early for Christmas, but this will help you feel the spirit of the coming season for damn sure.