Producers: Marc Platt and Adam Siegel Director: Tim Federle Screenplay: Tim Federle Cast: Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Michelle Federer, Norbert Leo Butz, Finn Egan-Liang, Krystina Alabado, Brooks Ashmanskas, Keola Simpson, Anaseini Katoa, Kylie Kuioka, Priscilla Lopez and George Benson Distributor: Disney+
Tim Federle’s 2013 novel “Better Nate Than Ever,” written for middle-school kids, was a celebration first of those theatre-loving boys and girls who dream of Broadway musical stardom, but more generally of all youngsters who chase their dreams, however unrealistic they’re told they are, or are simply ridiculed for being different. His adaptation of the book, which he’s also directed, is, like its star, cute but too bluntly over-the-top to be as charming as it strives to be.
Newcomer Rueby Wood, a pint-sized bundle of energy, plays Nate Foster, a thirteen-year-old Pittsburgh kid whose odd interests and smart-alecky attitude get him bullied. His father Rex (Norbert Leo Butz) is confused about his son’s behavior, and his mother Sherrie (Michelle Federer) tries to be supportive, but to his brother Anthony (Joshua Basset) he’s just an embarrassment. He does have one close pal in fellow theatre geek Libby Reneé (Aria Brooks), who, when he fails to get one of the leads in the school show, urges him to take an “unauthorized” trip to New York City to audition for an upcoming musical and even volunteers to go with him. (In the book, it was a musical version of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” but the movie being a Disney production, it’s now an adaptation of “Lilo & Stitch.”)
Reaching an idealized Times Square, where the people are uncommonly genial and supportive, Nate and Libby find the audition but need a parent or guardian to get him admitted. Luckily they bump into his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), herself a struggling actress, and though she and Sherrie have long been estranged, they con her into helping him. Though his audition is not without incident, he gets the holy grail of a callback. He also discovers that there’s a place for street performers in NYC, and does an impromptu number that proves a sensation on TikTok.
Meanwhile Libby, who’s returned to Pittsburgh after Nate’s dashed her hopes for a romantic relationship—though the word is never used, it’s pretty obvious his inclinations lie elsewhere—is forced to spill the beans to Anthony, and the two speed off to New York to bring him home. Nate manages to get out by climbing down a fire escape, though, and makes the callback, and of course all instead arrive to show their support, which proves instrumental in his overcoming his jitters and getting the part. The movie closes, predictably, with his family and friends cheering Nate on from the audience as he performs in the show, yet another Disney Broadway smash (and perhaps, in future, not a fictitious one).
Wood, already a stage trooper (he was in the touring company of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) brings a ton of brass and a strong singing voice to Nate, though up close he can be overbearing at times. He has a particularly good rapport with Brooks, and the two make a team it’s easy to root for. Of the rest Kudrow is a standout, using her quirky delivery to give some punch to scenes that might otherwise have stumbled badly. Unhappily most of the others, especially the actors playing the “Lilo & Stitch” production staff, suffer from Federle’s direction, which vacillates between being overemphatic and lackadaisical. On the other hand he handles the musical numbers well, a testament to his own Nate-style love of Broadway tuners (he’s also involved with the Disney “High School Musical” series).
The picture has been mounted with an eye to Nate’s dreams and rose-colored perceptions, with Jane Musky’s production design and Keri Lederman’s set decoration spot-on in that regard. Declan Quinn’s cinematography is at its best in the musical numbers, and so is Katie McQuerrey’s editing, which helps give them the feel of old-style movie musicals. Gabriel Mann’s score is bouncy, and the choice of songs, both original and borrowed, fits the film’s good-naturedness.
This kiddie version of the old tale of unlikely Broadway triumph is pleasant enough, but it doesn’t merit a prolonged curtain call.