One of the oldest and most traditional stories come Christmas time is The Nutcracker. Every festive season families head to the ballet to witness the dance of the sugar plum fairies and see Christmas toys coming to life. Or if you were a movie connoisseur such as my younger self, you watched the animated movie adaptation of the story – Barbie in The Nutcracker – on repeat every year without fail.
For those poor souls who may not be familiar with the 2000s movie classic that is Barbie in The Nutcracker, it is an immensely enjoyable adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King – a story originally published in 1816 by Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffmann. The film follows a girl called Clara whose favourite toy, a nutcracker, comes to life one Christmas Eve.
Pretty simple premise, right? Well, hold on, folks, because it turns out that the Nutcracker is actually a prince. And upon seeing the wooden hero fighting a squadron of mice by accident, Clara is shrunk down to toy size too. The now tiny girl, desperate to escape this strange situation, must help her animated toy find the Sugar Plum fairy in order to defeat the one baddie who stole his kingdom and put a curse on her in the first place – the Mouse King.
In terms of movie villains, The Mouse King always stuck out in my mind as eerie. With his cruel and tyrannical attitude, he was easily intimidating to any child who watched him embark on his relentless power trips via their small screens. And funnily enough, even after revisiting this film with my older and more cynical eyes, I still found him as an antagonist to be incredibly effective and just downright nasty.
So I did what any movie fan with too much time on their hands would do. I tried to figure out why this children’s character made me (a horror movie fanatic) so goddam nervous. At first, I thought that this gut feeling of fear that the Mouse King evokes might be due to the fact that the cartoon character was voiced by none other than Tim Curry (you know, the original Pennywise, from the IT horror series in the ’90s).
But after doing some digging into my discomfort with the character, I discovered that The Mouse King’s symbolism and origin are rooted in some deep and truly disturbing lore – which goes above and beyond Curry’s acting talents. Although the Mouse King in the Barbie movie and often in the ballet versions of The Nutcracker is a typical royal rodent, in the novel, the character is depicted as having seven heads and was a reference to the real-life phenomenon known as Rat Kings.
A Rat King, in real life, is the term given to a collection of rats whose tails tangle and bond together in some way. Meaning that the rodents are essentially stuck together and must move as one. Pretty horrific, right? The term the Rat King, was said to have originated in Germany, and over the years, the collection of rats has had plenty of meanings and lore attached to their very existence.
For some, a Rat King is considered a bad omen, a bringer of the plague. And in mythology, the Rat King was a symbol of an evil-natured monarch whose demands to sit high atop a throne of lower rats led to a legacy of tangled and broken subjects that literally embodied the twistedness of his rule.
Luckily, Rat Kings in real life are considered extremely rare, and their existence to occur without fraudulent methods is often debated by professionals due to the limited evidence of the phenomenon occurring naturally without human interference. However, a live case of a Rat King was uncovered in Estonia as recently as 2021, so yeah, Clara and her Nutcracker’s woes weren’t as based in fiction as we may have liked them to be.
The Mouse King is basically the perfect example of a tyrannical ruler, and let’s be honest, is a template for a nightmare-inducing horror character too. With such a prominent villain, who is not only a criticism of the nasty nature of power but also monstrous in appearance, it is easy to see why The Nutcracker has stood the test of time. The Mouse King and his impact as a Christmas movie antagonist never goes out of spooky style.
That being said, although some ballet shows of the story do refer to multiple heads, I think it is time for a proper scary movie for kids with the tangled rodent as the main star. I don’t know about you, but I think the world is ready for a remake of Barbie in the Nutcracker, with the Rat King featured in his full seven-headed and disturbing glory.