Disney Channel Original Movies were a little seminal section of growing up for any kid who had cable. We would wax poetically about Smart House, Brink!, and High School Musical like we finally found what we were looking for, even going so far as getting an entire frat to watch High School Musical 2 on a Saturday Evening for a pre game. A great Disney Channel movie isn’t probably a great technical achievement, but it should be a joy to watch and sing along with, while maybe learning something along the way. So it brings me great joy to say that Sneakerella accomplishes those goals, hopefully giving the streaming generation their version of one of those lovely little nostalgia markers they’ll fondly remember when pregaming for a college Saturday night.
The beats of Cinderella are all there. The male name inside Cinderella is “El” (Chosen Jacobs), a teenager living in Queens, NYC. A gifted shoe designer, El toils at Laces, what was his mom’s shoe store, but is now run by his overbearing stepdad Trey (Bryan Terrell Clark), who uses El for free labor while Trey’s sons Zelly (Kolton Stewart) and Stacy (Hayward Leach) get to live out their dumb dreams. One day El closes Laces early to go halfsies with his LGBTQ best friend Sami (Devyn Nekoda, at least Disney makes it clear she’s a lesbian in dialogue, baby steps I guess) to buy sneaker mogul/former NBA great Darius King’s (John Salley) vintage OG kicks. In line, El becomes enamored with a girl named Kira (Lexi Underwood), who unbeknownst to him is Darius’s daughter, Kira King, the Princess of Sneakerdom living in their Manhattan Castle Penthouse. Cue some awful stepfamily shenanigans, fairy godparents, a (sneaker) ball, and hopefully happily ever after.
The minute I heard Sneakerella, I was intrigued. A fairytale around sneakers, a beloved part of African-American Culture? And have the lead be a shoe designer from NYC?? For Disney’s woeful record toward black people, this is actually a really good idea if they execute it well. And for the most part, they do! The first half is a delight, as Chosen Jacobs and Lexi Underwood sing and dance their way into your hearts: well cast and having a blast. Plus, I’ll have my eye on Devyn Nekoda, making her mark in spite of a cliched support part, as well. The modern twists on royalty, castles, magical people and places, are all cleverly thought out, as well as building the story around artistic expression, which helped me understand better than maybe ever before why shoe culture contains within it so much for so many people. But maybe the biggest surprise was how the step brothers and stepdad were handled. Suffice to say its much smarter than “Disney Channel Original Movie” might suggest, with the bad in laws at least pretty smart, and some of the in laws bad because of stress/circumstances, not because they’re straight evil like the 1950 evil stepmother. Hell even Kira’s family is supportive, if a bit skeptical. What results then is a movie where we’re mostly happy with every character onscreen, making Sneakerella breezy and fun to watch with its specificity and good natured storytelling regardless of how loopy the ending gets (it’s the most unintentionally funny part of the movie for sure).
But a lot of Sneakerella’s success relies on a catchy soundtrack: one that earworms into your heart and makes you want to see and hear it, over and over again. Elvin Ross, who made his name in the Madea world, finds just the right balance of catchy but not overly irritating. Probably because he mixes up the sound, song to song. The opening number “Kicks” is more of a banger, designed to stomp to, well choreographed to set up the movie in 3 minutes. Then you have “Best Ever” (one of my faves) which is bascially a great pop anthem and a love letter to Astoria, Queens. There’s the swoony sad ballad, the bad guy monotone chill menacer, the fairy godmother anthem, Kira’s female pop hit (probably the catchiest), the lovely classic Cinderella montage, and a completely insane final number overstuffed to the max. Each song helps service the story: either filling in something specific on a place, a character, the plot, or the themes of the movie, like all great musicals should do. I kept finding my head bopping around unintentionally, a testament to the way Sneakerella’s musical numbers just lifted my spirits minute by minute, and for parents, I promise they’re diverse and fun enough so you shouldn’t get too sick of em.
At the end of the day, Disney made a great black fairy tale with its great Disney Channel Original Movie Sneakerella. I hope Disney doesn’t stop with African Americans, and gives us fairy tales in all shapes and sizes, for everyone on the planet. Because, let’s face it, every kid should have a chance at a fairytale, dream, or wish. And as Sneakerella reminds us, if you keep on believing (in yourself), the dreams that you wish will come true!