How a jookin, gangsta-walking Mouse King ended up in Disney’s new “Nutcracker”

The dancing is worth watching in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
The dancing is worth watching in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
Image: Disney
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Disney’s movie remake of the famous fairy tale and classic ballet The Nutcracker, reimagined as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, was released to largely abysmal reviews yesterday (Nov. 2). Rolling Stone proposed that the film—a Narnia ripoff at best and fever dream at worst—would have Tchaikovsky, who wrote the music for the ballet, “rolling in his grave.”

One thing the movie did do decently was diversify the cast. Morgan Freeman plays the heroine’s wizened godfather, and British actor Jayden Fowora-Knight plays a nutcracker soldier.

And then there is the dancing. Among the film’s highlights are performances by ballerina Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theater’s first African-American principal dancer. She plays a ballerina in the story’s fantasyland and treats viewers to a rendition of The Nutcracker ballet in the movie itself.

But there is another well-known dancer in the film, although (like much of the cast) he’s hard to see behind rather excessive costuming. Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, a dancer from Memphis, Tennessee, plays the nefarious Mouse King. Although directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston mostly hide Lil Buck behind a mass of undulating CGI mice (aka the Mouse King), anyone who has seen him dance can tell who’s behind the special-effects rodents.

Lil Buck helped bring to fame jookin, a style of street dancing that emerged in late-1980s Memphis. It’s “comprised of a jerky gait called a gangsta walk, mixed with various elements of other street styles from liquid to break,” Vogue wrote last year in an article about Lil Buck. The dancer is known for his mastery of this footwork-heavy dance style, thanks in part to injuries, one from when he was four and another at age 18, that left his ankles incredibly flexible (paywall).

“The [Mouse King] choreography is based on my subtle movements, how I walk,” Buck told Dance Spirit. “The point was for the Mouse King to always look like he’s in motion, even if he’s standing still. I had to work on and visualize every part of my body being its own living thing, its own organism.”

It’s this mastery and ethos that catapulted Lil Buck to fame in 2011, when filmmaker Spike Jonze captured the dancer in action at an event on a cell phone. After Jonze uploaded the video to YouTube, Lil Buck’s interpretive performance of “The Dying Swan,” played by Yo-Yo Ma, went viral:

After that, Lil Buck continued to spread the gospel of jookin. Although the dance form had existed for 25 years previously, he’s often credited with bringing it to the world stage. The New Yorker speculated in a 2013 profile that his success was due “not just to his dancing, but also to his charisma… Lil Buck has it by the boatload.”

Lil Buck studied ballet at the New Ballet Ensemble in Memphis. He’s also performed with Madonna at the Super Bowl, spent a year with Cirque du Soleil, and taken the stage at the New York City Ballet for a series of performances in 2014.

While audiences and critics may be dissatisfied with the new film, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the captivating new Mouse King.