If only so many of our traditional holiday diversions didn’t take the form of quick reads, animated TV specials, and other short-form entertainment. Think of the Christmas-themed movie adaptations that would benefit from having a clear feature-length blueprint to follow, rather than leaving the studio elves to “round out” the material. Recall, say, that bizarre chase in Jim Carrey’s “A Christmas Carol” — or don’t.
Disney’s muddled “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is another case in point. What starts as a modest, agreeable riff on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tale — and, more relevantly, Tchaikovsky’s ballet — eventually veers into stultifying action, rote twists, and other badly forced contemporary tweaks. Director Lasse Hallström (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”) ended up sharing credit on the film with Joe Johnston (“Captain America”) after some reported late-game reshooting, which might leave some grown-ups idly wondering who contributed what. Not good — not when kids of all ages are meant to be too swept up by yuletide magic to be thinking of anything else.
This new “Nutcracker” gets to making changes straightaway, establishing Victorian cutie Clara (capably cast Mackenzie Foy, the “Twilight” series) as a girl with a sad backstory and a tinkerer’s resourcefulness. Pity that she and her adoring inventor godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, sporting an eyepatch and some serious bedhead), can’t unlock a cryptic, metaphor-loaded puzzle egg her late mother gave her. But wait — he does subtly steer her toward a Narnia-esque parallel world and the key she seeks.
Enter Clara’s trusty guide, nutcracker soldier Phillip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), and the key-pilfering Mouse King, creatively visualized here as a wriggling mass of mice that tests that PG rating. But the story is less interested in either of them than in exploring the fantasyland overseen by Sugar Plum (top-billed Keira Knightley, putting on a lavender beehive and an irksome Barbie squeak), nefarious Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), and others.
There’s some merit to the film’s expansion of the view the ballet offers. Its majestically rendered Byzantine palace is a digital treat. A segment featuring American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland is an even nicer flourish, simultaneously touching on legacy and cleverly presenting a story within the story within the story. (Follow all that?)
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from the moment Clara ventures into Mother Ginger’s realm and its ill-advised, “It”-rivaling clownscape. The best we can say about the lengthy action barrage this kicks off is that Foy does look fab in her Nutcracker-regulation soldier-girl duds. Here’s hoping for more consistent holiday-adaptation fare in next week’s release of “The Grinch.”
THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS
Directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston. Written by Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy. Starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman. Boston theaters, suburbs. 99 mins. PG (mild peril).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.