At a time when Hollywood is desperately mining every possible bit of intellectual property and turning it into sparkly blockbusters and potential cinematic universes, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels most like a film that was concocted in a lab using a hyperspecific formula. (The formula: IP multiplied by movie stars and tons of CGI, plus censored, family friendly messaging.) Its trippy-as-balls visual flourishes and basic plot—girl is transported to a fantastical realm; CGI-filled high jinks ensue—are so reminiscent of the new Alice in Wonderland movies that Tim Burton should immediately file a lawsuit. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ protagonist Clara, played by Mackenzie Foy, is the umpteenth iteration of “precocious wunderkind who just needs a nudge in the right direction to own her destiny” (see also: A Wrinkle in Time). Foy’s character has two siblings, and they are so forgettable and unimportant one of them literally ends the movie with a variation of “Hey, don’t forget about me!” (Sorry kid, they totally did.) Even the Tchaikovsky of it all is severely lacking.
In other words, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is an unimpressive, derivative affair—a reminder that even Disney is capable of an occasional big-budget dud. And yet, the movie isn’t a total loss, because one person in this whole enterprise boldly decided to let their weirdo flag fly and turn an otherwise neutered visual spectacle into surprisingly entertaining performance art.
Keira Knightley: You know her from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and approximately 10 million period dramas. In The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, she plays the Sugar Plum Fairy, one of four regents presiding over the four realms of this wacky parallel universe. Knightley’s performance is one of the most surprising, strangest, horniest (really) things I’ve seen in a major blockbuster this year, a mixture of Tom Hardy’s go-for-broke approach to Venom and Vanessa Kirby’s arousal for all things dangerous in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.
Knightley’s performance is truly incredible, and if Disney had to spend more than $130 million on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for it to exist, it was money well spent. I can’t stop thinking about the Sugar Plum Fairy. Maybe writing about it will help: These are the three biggest reasons Knightley steals the show. And just know I’m about to spoil the hell out of this movie, so please stop reading if you really care about the plot details of the friggin’ Nutcracker movie.
The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Sugary Voice (and Weird Turns of Phrase)
You get a few snippets of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s voice in the Four Realms’ trailer, but those are not nearly enough to prepare you for an entire feature film of Keira Knightley sounding like if Kristin Chenoweth vaped helium. And it’s not just the preposterously mousy voice that pops, as the Sugar Plum Fairy enunciates words like someone who’s just beginning to grasp the English language. As far as the Sugar Plum Fairy is concerned, the word “banished” is pronounced “ban-e-shed.”
Knightley explained to Entertainment Weekly the thought process behind creating her Sugar Plum Fairy voice: It’s a sweet character, so she wanted a voice that sounds sweet. “The only thing I’ve got to go on is the Sugar Plum Fairy which is sugary and sweet, so maybe the voice needs to go up there and meet that musical motif,” she explained, citing The Nutcracker ballet’s “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” which she apparently watched hundreds of times (!) to prepare for the role. For more on Knightley’s process, watch this interview with BBC Radio, an unbelievably haunting affair in which the actress vacillates between her real voice and the high-pitched horror of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s voice:
The Sugar Plum Fairy’s alien-like presence in the film is also accentuated by the phrases she uses: The multiple usage of “adieu,” the flourishing adjective “tippy top-notch,” and the resounding disappointment of the phrase “oh poo.” All of this might not sound bizarre on paper, but trust me, it’s quite jarring when uttered by Knightley doing her most impressive sexy baby voice.
The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Body … Parts of Which Are Literally Made of Candy
Thinking about what, exactly, the Sugar Plum Fairy is turns The Four Realms from a Christmas-themed Disney movie into more of a horror flick. You see, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the other inhabitants of this alternate universe were created by Clara’s deceased mother, who was called their “queen” but was more accurately their god, since brought them into existence.
Now, it’s implied that Clara’s mom created the Sugar Plum Fairy and the other characters when she was a little girl, which explains why the Sugar Plum Fairy is at least partially made out of candy. Right, yes—Keira Knightley’s character is made out of candy in this movie. And that candy can be eaten, by anyone, including the Sugar Plum Fairy herself. She can eat herself. Like, when she’s telling Clara about the history of the four realms, she straight up yanks some of her pink hair off and begins to eat it. Because it’s cotton candy.
That is … terrifying? Are the Sugar Plum Fairy’s fingernail clippings just coconut shavings? Where does this madness end? Watching The Four Realms, you start feeling sympathetic for these characters, especially considering that, when Clara’s mother died, their world was abandoned by their god and they had no clue what happened. I mean, the place legit spiraled into chaos: As the Sugar Plum Fairy tells Clara, in her mother’s absence another regent, Mother Ginger (played by Helen Mirren, incredibly), tried to take over all the realms for herself. (I assume Mother Ginger’s skin is literally coated in ginger because this place is a food-crazed hellscape, but it’s never addressed.) The Four Realms is just this godless power vacuum full of self-cannibalizing fairies. It’s horrifying but … everyone, including the Sugar Plum Fairy, seems to be super cool with it?
The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Unbridled Horniness
Yeah, about that: The big twist of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is that (spoiler alert!) Mother Ginger is not actually trying to rule the kingdom—the Sugar Plum Fairy is. When the Sugar Plum Fairy gets what she wants from Clara—a key to a device that can turn inanimate objects into living things, and vice versa—she begins to build an army made out of Nutcracker soldier dolls to take over the four realms. And these dolls-turned-soldiers get the Sugar Plum Fairy, uh, quite excited.
Here are some of the character’s horniest moments—all of which happen once she turns all the little dolls into very big, very strong boys.
- “They’re huge!” Clara exclaims in horror, to which the Sugar Plum Fairy thirstily responds, “I know, isn’t it magnificent?”
- “Hello, boys!” the Sugar Plum Fairy says, addressing them with a twinkle in her eye, which might actually be a spherical gummy.
- “Boys in uniform with weapons send a quiver right through me.” … Yeah.
- “Jog on boys,” she squeals, sizing up the soldiers as they prepare to march into battle.
Just a reminder: This is a Disney children’s movie. Disney is a studio that has carefully sexually neutered an entire universe of adult superheroes, yet here is Keira Knightley—in the freaking Nutcracker movie—playing a fascist leader with cotton candy hair, joyously talking about how boys with guns are making her feel some type of way.
This isn’t a complaint, by the way: It’s hilarious, campy, and wildly unexpected. I just imagine some executive at Disney checking out an early test screening and being like, “It’s great, guys. I’m just concerned that we’re one step away from the Sugar Plum Fairy licking one of the Nutcracker soldiers’ swords.” Whatever the case, Knightley plays all of this gloriously.
I will forget everything about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms—in fact, I already barely remember Succession’s very own Matthew Macfadyen being in this movie as Clara’s super sullen dad who just wants to have a Christmas Eve dance with his daughter. (He apparently doesn’t care about his other two kids, either.) Disney, too, will likely want to forget this flop. But we shouldn’t forget what Keira Knightley did in this otherwise bland movie, injecting it with the voice of Evil Carol Channing, edible hair made of the stuff you can find at an amusement park, and an unrelenting sexual desire for suddenly sentient toy soldiers. Forget Best Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, the Oscars needs to create a new acting category called Doing the Most, and hand out the inaugural awards to Venom’s Tom Hardy and Keira Knightley.