Keira Knightley’s performance as Sugar Plum in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is probably my favorite camp performance since Johnny Depp introduced us all to Captain Sparrow. Whether she is playing comedy, as she is here, drama (A Dangerous Method), or normal (Laggies, Begin Again) she always seems to convey that she is hearing lines for the first time and saying them impromptu rather than reading them off a script. It’s easy to overpraise actors for taking “risks,” but sometimes one senses that holding back even a little, being guarded even a little, would deflate the energy necessary to propel stores that are essentially live-action cartoons.
Since focusing on a single performer or some other narrow aspect of a film can easily be construed as a backhanded way of inferring that it is the only thing worth discussing, I will hasten to add that the film as whole worked just fine for me. No, it was not the instant classic that I suppose any studio that makes a holiday-themed movie hopes it will be, but it is a consistently entertaining fantasy with a likable heroine, delightful art design, and a decent message.
Clara (Mackenzie Foy) opens the story grieving the death of her mother who has left her a mechanical egg with no key. She quickly finds her way to the land of the four realms and discovers that her mother had also discovered it many years ago. Clara’s initially more interested in finding the key than in assuming her role as princess of the realms, but her mother’s not-so-cryptic note (“Everything you need is inside you”) suggests that the real purpose of her visit will be that of any fantasy quest: to learn that the questing, not the treasure, is what transforms the heroine.
The Nutcracker does a nice job of making a Disney princess who is an active agent trying to accomplish something more than landing a prince. The London sequences set up Clara as a bit of a STEM girl. She builds a Rube Goldbergesque mousetrap and discusses gears and locks with the enigmatic Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). She comes into her own in the Four Realms, gradually moving from needing the protection of the guard to being willing to strike out on her own.
The film also avoids some of the more obvious and annoying conventions of kids’ movies. Clara’s older sister is neither a brat nor a witch. She brushes her sister’s hair and tries her best to console her. Her father comes across, reasonably, as numb rather than cold. In one of the nicest moments of the film, a microcosm for the whole, Clara’s diversion into the four realms grants her a new perspective from which to see her own world.
My biggest gripe is that the ballet dancing itself is condensed and edited to the point where it may disappoint some of the Nutcracker’s built-in fan base. I was okay with limiting the dancing to an interlude, but must that interlude be so short? That disappointment aside, the film as a whole was more entertaining than I expected, and damn Keira Knightley is fun to watch.