Has Disney’s new motto become “We don’t talk about princesses, no, no, no?”
Because I am here for it.
By my calculation, the most recent Disney princesses are Elsa and Anna from 2013’s Frozen—where the very idea of marrying a prince you just met is mocked—and 2016’s Moana—which is sans any romantic interest at all. I don’t think Mirabel from Disney’s latest animated movie, Encanto, even falls into the princess category. These women saved their respective kingdoms using perseverance, wit, inner strength and maybe a little bit of magic. Princesses are fun and sparkly. Some children love them and love to dress up as them, which is great. But Disney seems to have realized telling little girls that finding a prince should be their endgame isn’t exactly the best messaging. The princess revolution continues with Disney+’s Sneakerella, which is a modern day gender-flip of the classic Cinderella story. The movie is also racially and culturally diverse, something that is thankfully becoming more and more the norm as Disney continues to course-correct decades of only featuring young, white princesses.
El (Chosen Jacobs) is a teen living in Queens who dreams of being a sneaker designer. “He grew up believing that the perfect pair of kicks could make him fly,” his neighbor/soon-to-be Fairy Godfather Gustavo (Juan Chioran) narrates. El lives above his family’s shoe store, Laces, with his stepfather Trey (Bryan Terrell Clark) and his step-brothers Stacy (Hayward Leach) and Zelly (Kolton Stewart). Yes, of course both of El’s parents are dead. It was his late mother who instilled in El his love of sneakers. We are even treated to emotional flashbacks with his dying mother. Who’s to say what became of his dad? As a general rule, dead dads aren’t nearly as important to Disney.
Trey makes El work at the store while Stacy and Zelly, who, in one of the movie’s more fun jokes, dream of returning to New Jersey, get to practice Judo and attend future venture capitalist meetings. “Enough is enough. Sometimes you just gotta let your dreams go,” Trey tells El.
While in line to buy the latest sneaker from former basketball-player-turned-sneaker-mogul Darius King (John Salley), El and his best friend Sami (Devyn Nekoda) meet Kira (Lexi Underwood). Little does El know that Kira is actually the daughter of—wait for it—Darius King. She’s a real-life sneaker princess. What are the odds?
Jacobs is a delightful screen presence full of charisma and amazing moves; he’s having so much fun dancing, I had to remind myself that what he’s doing is very difficult. He makes it look so easy. Underwood, who can also currently be seen as Malia Obama in Showtime’s The First Lady, is equally delightful. Kira is a young woman figuring out where she fits in. “Should my opinion count for something?” she asks her parents. As the center of the story, Kira and El are an utterly charming pair.
The storyline itself, though, is thin as it tries to retrofit the Cinderella fairytale into this modern version. There are plot points that don’t make a lot of sense. When Kira doesn’t know how to find El after they are separated following a whirlwind date through Queens, my seven-year-old asked, “Couldn’t she just go back to the restaurant where the owner knew El?” You also have to buy into the central conceit of the movie that sneakers are of paramount importance. To be fair, there are many sneakerheads out there (Netflix made a whole series about it) and there actually is an event called Sneaker Con (which is happening in L.A. in a few weeks). But to El, “sneakers can be the window into someone’s soul.” That sounded like a stretch to me, but people who love their kicks, love their kicks. And other Disney movies have asked for much more of a willing suspension of disbelief. Once you go along with that, the movie literally spells out for the viewer that “the King sisters are flipping the script in a modern day Cinderella story” in case somehow you had missed what was happening. So you aren’t coming to Sneakerella for the story.
You’re coming for the singing and the phenomenal dancing. The choreography, by Ebony Williams and Emilio Dosal, is outstanding. If you are a fan of the Zombies and Descendants franchises, the songs, especially ones like “Best Ever,” will have a familiar sound while others, like the kick-off number “Kicks,” are enthusiastic and filled with gravity-defying moves. Some songs fare better than others. The step-brothers rap “Shut It Down” is like a hilarious, G-rated version of one of Saturday Night Live’s digital shorts. “Life Is What You Make It” is a win-win: It’s catchy and has a great message. And no one is having more fun than Salley. His rap duel with Jacobs in the movie’s finale is a hoot. Unfortunately, Sneakerella clocks in at nearly two hours, which is long, especially for the movie’s target audience, and the scenes between musical numbers drag.
One other quibble comes from a stab at representation. Sami is gay. We know this because she talks about her girlfriend and tells El that “You gotta kiss a lot of lady frogs before you find a princess.” But we never meet Sami’s girlfriend and her sexual orientation is never mentioned again in the movie. It’s the most basic baby step of progress, coming off more like Sneakerella checking a box.
El talks about designing that elusive “one of ones” sneaker, something so special it can’t be replicated. Sneakerella definitely isn’t that, but as a tween musical full of catchy songs, the shoe fits.
Director: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum
Writers: David Light, Joseph Raso, Tamara Chestna, Mindy Stern, George Gore II
Starring: Chosen Jacobs, Lexi Underwood, Devyn Nekoda, Bryan Terrell Clark, Kolton Stewart, Hayward Leach, Robyn Alomar, Yvonne Senat Jones, Juan Chioran
Release Date: May 13, 2022 (Disney+)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).