When I first saw the trailers for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I was excited. It looked like a brand new fantasy world for fans to sink their teeth into, though my enthusiasm was tempered a bit by this world having a veneer of “sameness” resembling other Disney features like Alice in Wonderland. Still, I wasn’t deterred. After all, this was most likely Joe Johnston’s final film, this time sharing director credit with Lasse Hallstrom, who left the project during re-shoots. Johnston is a director I’ve been following since I was seven years old, though I didn’t know it at the time, having watched his work on Star Wars as a model maker all the way through his latest big-budget effort as director with Captain America: The First Avenger. After his status as the director of The Silver Chair – a film he had said would be his final time in the director’s chair – was put in doubt with Netflix’s acquisition of the Narnia franchise, The Nutcracker is said to be his last movie, so I was really hoping he’d finish strong.
Fifteen minutes in, my hope began to diminish. It looked like every other Disney movie from, ironically, Narnia to even bits of Fantasia, the latter of which made sense given the overtures of the movie. But it just felt as though it was a studio-mandated mess of mediocrity. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time, and it all leads back to Disney’s quest to find the next Pirates of the Caribbean. The original concept was a bold one: take a theme park ride and turn it into an epic movie with enormous scale and scope. It worked for Pirates, so they decided to apply the same idea to various other properties, be it a video game (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), remakes of previous films (Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Alice in Wonderland), or even more theme parks (Tomorrowland and the upcoming Jungle Cruise). Yet, aside from Alice in Wonderland, whose success is often attributed to the 3D boom more than the film itself, none of those movies really worked. It was all about big ideas, large-scale productions, and… not much else. All too often, Disney relies on the nostalgia of their past properties to sell their latest products through increasingly thin narratives, yet still expect audiences to embrace sub-par entertainment once again. The aforementioned properties were one of three tent poles Disney has built for their movie division, the other two being Marvel and Star Wars. With Marvel, which Disney acquired in 2009 for 4 billion dollars, the franchise was already initiated by Kevin Feige and distributor Paramount Pictures. When Marvel was brought under the Disney umbrella, Feige more or less just continued with his plan for the MCU, gaining more and more autonomy with every success.
With Star Wars, George Lucas had started development on Episode VII before the sale to Disney. Granted, they didn’t end up using his story treatments for the sequel trilogy, but they did use his characters, characters that people have wanted to see again for over thirty years. Yes, Disney’s money paid for it, but it was the legacy and the brand that all but guaranteed a return on investment. Both of these brands were at their apex, and Disney has exploited them for their benefit. On the surface, the three entities – Disney, Lucasfilm, and, Marvel – didn’t necessarily need one another, but had everything to gain from collaborating. Yet, when surveying Disney’s past productions, it becomes clear that the House of Mouse needed these two fanboy-driven franchises to bolster their failing enterprises. Lucasfilm and Star Wars are both self-perpetuating narrative engines, engines that Disney doesn’t need to do much with to get their money back. They have producers in Kevin Feige and Kathleen Kennedy, who are primarily responsible for those projects, who essentially act as the faces of the companies, while the rest of the Disney brand has… Iger? Peter Roth? These are faces the public wouldn’t necessarily associate with being the creative head, but rather a business-minded executive.
Yes, there is the errant Solo and Inhumans with Star Wars and Marvel, but ultimately these are two brands which have ushered Disney into the upper echelon of box office prowess, something that will only continue when they acquire Fox, pending the DOJ’s approval. Despite their success, Disney continues to phone it in. This year’s examples, like A Wrinkle in Time and The Nutcracker, had two great performers in Storm Reid and Mackenzie Foy, but poor narrative and, particularly in the case of the former, poor dialogue. Granted, that could be said of a lot of leads in 2010’s Disney films, like Dave Stutler from Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Cassie Newton from Tomorrowland, but I digress. In recent years, Disney has seemed content to throw money at creators for crappy narratives because they’ll just make it up with a Marvel or Star Wars movie, and they are more than that, something they proved with hits like Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast (both of which, I should reiterate, are projects from the past with a veneer of nostalgia to light the way). With The Nutcracker, they have a story and ballet well loved by generations, but like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice before it – that film also having a connection to Fantasia – Disney just couldn’t seem to entice modern moviegoing audiences. I suppose the biggest question is, why? Well, entertainment is changing. You have to give audiences a reason to come out to the theater. With Pirates of the Caribbean you had the zany, iconic performance of Johnny Depp, whereas a film like Tomorrowland you had… a grumpy George Clooney. In The Nutcracker‘s case, you had a bizarre performance from Kiera Knightly and… steampunk Oompa Loompas? Audiences expect and deserve more, and Marvel and Star Wars deserve more than being a pair of crutches.
The most demoralizing thing about all of this is that these properties have the potential to be billion-dollar franchises; franchises that Walt Disney himself would be proud of. Instead, most of these are relegated to the bargain bin in Best Buy (yes, I’ve looked). I hope one day Disney remembers to start mixing the money with the magic.