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The ending of Nutcracker and the Four Realms almost saves the movie

This ain’t your grandpappy’s George Balanchine ballet

Mackenzie Foy is Clara in THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS Laurie Sparham

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s holiday extravaganza, features a fearless young heroine questioning her place in the world, a far-away land (er, four realms) ruled by spectacularly dressed beings, and the undeniable magic of the holidays. If you know the classic story, you mostly know this movie.

Except for Sugar Plum. Not everything about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is what it seems, and the way they treat this character actually gives this by-the-books movie a punch.

[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms]

Clara and Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Laurie Sparham/Walt Disney Pictures

The fantasy epic treatment of the tale means there’s also a looming evil — think the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia or the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. For The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s the eerie, hag-like Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) who’s bent on taking over the Four Realms for herself. But here’s where things take an interesting turn.

In the film, the bubbly Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) is delighted to see Clara (Mackenzie Foy) in the realms and immediately wants to befriend her and throw a lavish pageant in her honor. Clara is a resourceful tomboy with no time to do her hair or makeup, so it’s Sugar Plum who gleefully volunteers instead.

While Philip (the actual name of the Nutcracker played by Jayden Fowora-Knight) is the first one to warn Clara of the dangers of Mother Ginger’s Fourth Realm, it’s Sugar Plum who details the exact details of the betrayal and urges Clara to help her save everyone repairing The Engine — a contraption created by Clara’s mother that brought all the citizens of the Four Realms to life in the first place — so that Sugar Plum may raise an army to defend the land.

It’s only after Clara successfully retrieves the key that will fix the Engine (and perhaps unlock her own mysterious gift from her mother) that it’s revealed that Sugar Plum plans to use this army to attack the innocent Mother Ginger — surprise!

We find out that it was Sugar Plum who falsely accused Mother Ginger of turning on the Four Realms. She’s so racked up with the grief of losing Clara’s mother Marie that she wants to make sure no one ever does it again. Her arc is a foil for Clara’s: Sugar Plum is unable to move on from her heartbreak, so it destroys her whereas Clara realizes that even though her mother is dead, she’ll never be gone from her heart. Mother Ginger, formerly painted to be the villain, becomes Clara’s motherly figure instead. She understands that while grief is hard, it is not permanent.

Sugar Plum’s gleeful laugh turned evil may come as a shock within the events of the movie, but looking at the Disney villains of recent years makes this turnaround a trope of the studio rather than the genre.

For the past half-decade or so, Disney has leaned into the surprise villain twist in its animated movies. Gone are the bombastic, over-the-top very clearly-evil villains like Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Scar from The Lion King. Instead, we have villains who aren’t revealed till later. See: Hans from Frozen, Callaghan from Big Hero 6, Bellwhether from Zootopia, Ernesto De La Cruz from Coco and Evelyn from this summer’s Incredibles 2. (Moana refreshingly flipped the now-overused flip and had no clear evil, after the “villain” turn out to be a force for good). So it’s not totally out of the realm (heh) that Disney applied this formula to its latest live-action fantasy.

Could we see a sequel to Four Realms that expands beyond the story we all know to twist the mythology even further? Don’t count on seeing any fifth realm: the film is only supposed to gross around $20 million in its opening weekend, a major dip from Disney’s billion-dollar streak. We’ll hold out for a streaming service resurrection. If the movie could pull off this kind of twist, anything is possible.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is in theaters now.

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