FilmSpace: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms; Johnny English Strikes Again; Smallfoot

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back at the week’s additional releases, including the stunning yet soulless sequel to The Nutcracker, Johnny English beating a dead horse with his third movie, and a surprisingly musing family film.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms – ★★☆☆☆

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a frustrating case. It has grand ambitions and a decent eye for visuals. But its presentation is soulless and unrefined, coming off less like a magical adventure of its own right, and more like the sugar free alternative to Narnia.

Intended as a sequel to the eons old tale, Mackenzie Foy plays Clara Stahlbuam, the daughter to the original’s main character, Marie Stahlbuam. Marie has since passed away, and Clara is left to cope with her grief at Christmas, puzzled by a strange, locked egg that Marie has given to her. In search of a key while at a party, Clara stumbles upon the Nutcracker from the original, and the Four Realms he lives in, which are all at war with each other; a war only Clara can stop.

Musically this film is great, and certain other elements also warrant praise. I think Mackenzie Foy is a fine actor who’s proven her dramatic chops many a time and does so again here. Her engaging presence and range makes Clara a decent constant of whose eyes we view the story from. There’s also an appealing visual at times concerning its world building. But nothing tops a live ballerina performance delivered by Misty Copeland in the middle of the story, which is so masterfully and elegantly immersive that you can almost see the film shooting itself in the foot.

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Individual sequences are perfectly enjoyable, but as a whole the film feels bland and manufactured. This is in part due to how fake it appears on both a physical and mental level. The CGI is very cheap looking, and when characters start fighting people or animals the choreography feels slow and jittery. You never get the sense that you’ve been transported to a magical dimension of imaginative endlessness. Technically speaking many of the visuals are colourful and gorgeous, but there’s no dramatic or emotional weight behind the majority of them.

Part of that is due to the cheapness of its look, from obvious computer effects to an array of costumes that are either opulent or ridiculous. But it also comes from the mundane attitude the film holds towards this land. Whenever Clara travels through these realms, the film glosses over how she’d react to this strange and wonderful new environment, shoving all awe to the side for a conflict story that’s bare as bones and as brittle too. That nonchalant feeling permeates the entire film. If the characters aren’t fascinated by the mystic of the Four Realms why should the audience be?

If the actors signed on purely as an excuse to walk around in stunning dresses and suits then I can’t say I blame them. But the film went in one ear and out the other. It’s not well-made and it doesn’t seem that interested in dazzling the audience outside of small bursts of energy. Dull, predictable, and ultimately anaemic, the film sadly won’t do much for those already accustom to the magic of movies like Harry Potter and Narnia.

Johnny English Strikes Again – ★★☆☆☆

Life is a cruel mistress to bestow a third Johnny English movie upon humanity. I have vaguely adequate memories of the first one, but then again I was 6 and stubbornly believed I’d seen Santa Claus wondering my house the night before Christmas (thanks for shattering my dreams Dad). I didn’t think enough people saw the second to warrant a third, but here we are nonetheless.

Rowan Atkinson reprises his role as the inept MI7 spy, whose stupidity clearly affects the characters around him too, otherwise he’d have been pushing up daisies years ago. He’s since retired to go teach in Lincolnshire, but is called back to service when a cyber-attack reveals the identities of all active MI7 agents. Before you can note the similarities to Skyfall, English is off to France with his sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) to bring the cybercriminal to justice.

I know I’m probably just jaded. The kind of humour this film and franchise offers is, in keeping with English’s Britishness, not my cup of tea. It does however work for many in the movie-going universe. If prat falls and silly faces tickles you pink then by all means have fun. You’ll be in for a banquet of them.

It’s a lame drudge of a film that I ended up viewing in a purgatory stasis – somewhere between annoyed and indifferent.

For myself however, I feel like I’ve seen this shtick too many times now. The bare minimum any comedy has to do is make me laugh. But I saw virtually every punchline coming, to the point where I was reciting the joke under my breath before the movie was. I doubt this was due to my powers of deduction as the film has a maddening habit of blatantly setting up the incoming joke for all those too young to understand subtlety.

Case and point: English and Bough sneak into a villain’s yacht by climbing the hull with magnetic boots. English confidently declares “no one will see us coming.” While climbing however, their boots start to magnetically attract the ship’s cutlery, swiftly revealing their presence to all on board. Har har har.

It rinses and repeats this formula of English projecting certainty, only for the punchline to contradict him, so often that it becomes mind-numbing. And the eye-rolling story and characters aren’t enough to save it. Atkinson is a brilliant physical comedian, but his character in Johnny English isn’t enjoyable as his only working trait is that he’s an idiot, and an intolerably smug one at that. The action is slow and predictable, the story is so old it’s probably etched in stone somewhere, and the only good comedy came from Emma Thompson as a Prime Minister equally as irritated by English’s buffoonery as myself.

Add it all up and we have something so uninspired that, after a while, it ceased to bother me. It’s a lame drudge of a film that I ended up viewing in a purgatory stasis – somewhere between annoyed and indifferent. At a mere 90 minutes, at least it’s short.

Smallfoot – ★★★☆☆

How do I describe the plot of Smallfoot without sounding like a madman? I fear that may be impossible but I shall try my best. A colony of Yeti live high up in the Himalayas. They live in peace by abiding to a collection of stones that answers every question and tells them how they should live their lives, which their leader wears as a robe. Channing Tatum is Migo, a Yeti who ends up discovering a human, or a Smallfoot as they call us, a creature which doesn’t exist according to the stones. The discovery of one could shatter all the beliefs of which this Yeti society has lived by for generations. Standing by what he saw, Migo goes off to find a Smallfoot and bring it back to the colony, no matter the consequences. It’s disheartening that the best he could find was a failing nature documentarist voiced by James Corden, but beggars can’t be choosers.

I think that’s the best I can do without going on forever. It’s one of those setups that’s relatively easy to follow once you’re watching it, but a nightmare to describe to outsiders. It sounds like the most overstuffed, juvenile nonsense where you can tell exactly what kind of story it’s going to be from frame one. It initially seems to go that way with its wishy-washy musical numbers and dialogue.

Turns out the film is surprisingly decent.

Okay it’s hardly Leave No Trace, but the narrative it takes and the messages it shares are genuinely refreshing. A setup like this usually leads to the most redundant of formulas. You would think that when Migo brings the Smallfoot back he’s going to get outcast again in some way, often by a liar cliché. This is not what happens.

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Instead the film showcases the power of curiosity, and how we should be questioning things in search of the truth rather than blindly accept everything we’re told. It may be fulfilling or futile, but it’s a sentiment that led us to discoveries like evolution, and the film champions this ideology for its younger audiences. With its third act, we’re treated to the clashing beliefs of Migo and the town leader, as the rest of the town is torn with confusion over the discovery of something they’ve been told never existed. Whether this is a euphuism for fake news or organised religion is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s heart-warming to see a film respect its younger demographic with messages of this calibre.

But even if deep analysis and good teachings isn’t what you come for with colourful family films, there’s still plenty of appeal to go around. The animation zanily matches the kinetic comedic tone, and the look of the Yeti society is inventive. The colours explode off the screen with vibrant synergy, and while nothing is knee-slapping the comedy can be quite amusing at times with enjoyable one liners and slapstick that occasionally shatters expectations. It moves well and it has an energy to it that keeps it watchable, even if it takes two thirds to get interesting.

This hasn’t been my most concrete review admittedly, but Smallfoot was a pleasant surprise, in spite of its overstuffing and occasional weak writing. Kids will probably have a lot of fun with it on one level or another. Adults may not react as strongly, and that’s understandable. Just remember, The Emoji Movie exists. It could be worse.

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