It's not really accurate to suggest that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the latest example of Disney's irritatingly robust program of remaking its animated features in shrieking, shiny CGI and "live-action". But it's not really inaccurate, either: the feature makes more than its share of glancing nods back towards 1940's Fantasia, mostly (though not exclusively!) its "Nutcracker Suite" sequence, enough to blur the line between "in-joke" and "oppressive shadow from which the new film can never emerge". At the very least, it's not much less of a Fantasia homage than it is an adaptation of Marius Petipa's libretto for the 1892 ballet that remains an end-of-year mainstay for companies the world over (and which is credited as a source for Ashleigh Powell's screenplay, alongside E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 novella; the Tchaikovsky music is also indifferently quoted in James Newton Howard's adequate score).

But really, what it is above all else is the third in what I pray to God ends up as just a trio of unaffiliated but extremely similar tales in which Disney takes a classic public domain fantasy and tries to force it into a Tolkienesque high fantasy model. The first was the terrible 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton, and the second was the merely dull 2013 Oz the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, and after all these years, I'd more or less forgotten about that strange cycle of movies and assumed it had worn itself out. Alas, not only does The Nutcracker and the Four Realms exist here in 2018, it has managed to find a path to be worse than either of its predecessors. No small achievement - Alice in Wonderland is, like, absolute dogshit - but I suppose that the difference between Burton and Raimi on the one hand, and Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston on the other, gets us pretty close to seeing how much more degraded The Nutcracker is than its decidedly unimpressive forebears.

Frankly, I think it speaks to something that a film could have co-directors as distinctive in their particular flavors of hackery as Hallström and Johnston (the latter took over a few weeks of re-shoots to help with the former's schedule, hence the shared credit), and end up with something that feels so homogenous. These movies aren't "directed", they're shepherded into existence at the behest of unfeeling executives, and without even the glimmers of a strong personality like Raimi's to try and wedge something interesting into the material, all we get is 100 minutes of shiny, putrescent CGI with absolutely no sense of magic or humanity.

Or, for that matter, basic storytelling competence - considering the number of script doctors I imagine this had, it's a little amazing that not one of them noticed how fucking deficient the bones of this thing are. In the very abstract, it's a somewhat adequate "gritty modern" adaptation of Hoffmann's story of a young girl of about 12 or 13, Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) has been reeling harder than the rest of her family from the recent death of her mother. The first Christmas since that tragedy is just rolling around, and Clara's father (Matthew Macfadyen) is steadily trying to bring a sense of normalcy back to the family, which in this case means dragging everybody along to the annual Christmas party held by eccentric wealthy inventor Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), the late Marie Stahlbaum's guardian. At the party, Clara is gently pushed in the direction of a dark hallway, and she emerges into a bright, snowy land of fantasy characters, learning along the way that her mother was the inventor and queen of this land. Only, since Marie's death, the Four Realms has descended into anarchy, as Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), regent of the Realm of Amusements, has declared war on the Realms of Flowers, Snowflakes, and Sweets. Those lands' respective regents, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), Shiver (Richard E. Grant), and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), impress upon Clara the need for immediate action, and Clara purposes to lead an army, alongside her Nutcracker bodyguard Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), into the Realm of Amusements to find the magic key that Drosselmeyer left her, and which was stolen by the Prince of Mice immediately after her arrival.

Christmas parties, magical presents from a strange inventor, a tour of lands based on the things 19th Century children enjoy about the holidays: it's all the ingredients of the original story and ballet, filtered crudely through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and then pressed into the same "throw a fantasy war movie at it" impulse that has been seducing film producers ever since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. It was probably too much to hope for this to be "good", but "adequate" was certainly on the table, at least.

Even that is to be denied us, unfortunately. The film's storytelling is frankly awful, filled with  fuzzy shortcuts that toss characters hither and yon with absolutely no sense of pacing or organic story flow, and for a film so invested in world-building that it shows up in the title, the setting is more or less incoherent, reduced to a handful of smudgy landscape shots. It also suffers from the least-shocking twist a story like this could possibly have, but one whose predictability doesn't mean that it feels remotely comprehensible in terms of what the characters might reasonably be expected to do. Insofar as the film has characters, as opposed to just stand-ins for plot points. Mother Ginger is particularly terrible in this respect, as she is barely established at all before falling victim to the whims of the plot, and is given absolutely no sense to loom in our imagination before being reduced to the status of a person who barks a couple of lines in a couple of scenes. Even by the standards of established actors taking roles in shitty kids' movies for an easy paycheck, I cannot imagine what drove Mirren to accept this nothing role, with which she proceeds to do the least-necessary amount of work.

There's a sense in which the film knows this; it seems to want to invest rather in spectacle, an approach that works if and only if the spectacle is interesting. It is very definitely not that. There are certainly aspects of Jenny Beavan's costume designs that have a certain florid appeal, and the sheer filigreed excess of Guy Hendrix Dyas's production design could attain its own level of charm through pure tastelessness (this doesn't even need us to wait for the fantasy section to kick in: Drosselmeyer's Christmas party is an alarmingly untrammeled assortment of garish colors and decorative objects, something like if the Moulin Rouge and Macy's Christmas displays had a love child). All visual aspects of the movie are compromised by the thick wall of cheap-looking CGI and digital color correction, though, which renders everything in a sickly veil of shiny, lifeless blue. It is, really, a profoundly shitty-looking movie, starting almost in the first shot, a huge digital flyover across waves of computer-generated mannequins pretending to be a crowd of humans. And for a film whose selling points are almost exclusively visual, this kind of free-for-all ugliness goes from being merely dispiriting to disastrous.

The bright spot in this dismal swamp is Keira Knightley, whose flutey line readings and over-exaggerated gestures are a lively way of getting at the idea that she plays the embodiment of eating too much sugar. She's having fun, and it's fun to watch her; I'm not sure that there's anything else fun in the whole damn thing. Even the solitary genuinely good things in the movie, a pair of cameos by the great dancer Misty Copeland, are crushed underneath too much editing and too little screen time. At any rate, extreme tackiness and outraged disappointment are as much part of the holidays as anything, so in that respect, I guess, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms evokes the spirit of the season.