The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Disney’s live-action, non-ballet scramble of The Nutcracker. It’s the story you may know and might love, remixed for an alternate reality where children are entertained by elaborate Victorian fantasies, and I can’t wait for the sequel, The Velveteen Rabbit and the Black Forest of Doom. Is this movie good? I don’t think “good” applies when the movie features Kiera Knightly as a cotton-candy-haired queen with a uniform kink. I think we’ve left “good” behind for the land of the utterly bizarre and mystifying.
Four Realms contains the usual Nutcracker elements of a girl, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), and a magical Christmas Eve spent frolicking with toys come to life. This Clara, though, is STEM-inclined and helps her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, cashing a check), with his elaborate clockworks. It’s Drosselmeyer who sends Clara into the Four Realms, and there Clara discovers the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and the regents of the Four Realms: Shiver (Richard E. Grant, shamefully wasted), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), and mad Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). The Four Realms are very Narnian, and Clara walks into being a princess because her mother was the queen of the Four Realms. But now her mother is dead and Mother Ginger has gone mad and is trying to take over the other three realms. They use the word “realms” SO MUCH in this movie.
So Keira Knightley’s performance is completely off the rails and really the only watchable thing in this movie. Misty Copeland shows up for a minute to dance, which is nice, but the main reason to expose your eyeballs to this mess is for Keira Knightley’s delightfully bonkers performance. It’s like she spotted the movie isn’t good and decided to just go full-throttle weird and see if anyone would stop her and then no one did. She speaks in a baby voice that she is horribly ill-suited for—some actresses can do that and make it seem natural, Knightley is not one of them—and when nervous she chomps on her own cotton candy hair.
But what makes her performance utterly bizarre is the vaguely sexual pleasure Sugar Plum gets in bossing around toy soldiers. The way Knightley coos and giggles starts to feel inappropriate after a while, given that the target age of the audience is five year olds. But it also walks Sugar Plum into Camp Land, and she drags the whole movie with her. With its outrageously elaborate costumes—courtesy Jenny Beavan—and fantastical sets from production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, Four Realms is ripe for camp reinterpretation. And though they are shunted to the sidelines and barely allowed to speak, both Derbez and Grant seemed tapped into Knightley’s vibe and every once in a while that batsh-t spark lights up in other corners of the movie.
In the same way that Tilda Swinton’s White Witch transcends the mediocrity of The Chronicles of Narnia, so too does Keira Knightley’s bonkers Sugar Plum Fairy seemed destined to spawn a cult of personality and ascend out of the dual-director mess she stars in. She’s weird and brazen and latently sexual, tonally out of whack with everything else in the movie, and frankly, she makes The Nutcracker and the Four Realms bearable. There are maybe some half-asleep toddlers who will enjoy this movie, otherwise, the only reason to watch it is to see Keira Knightley hit her “sexually aggressive witch” phase.