Based on the book of the same name written by High School Musical: The Musical: The Series showrunner Tim Federle, Better Nate Than Ever (also directed by Federle) follows Nate (Rueby Wood) on his quest to become a Broadway sensation. And he may have his shot to make his first steps in the theater world with an audition for the Lilo & Stitch musical, taking place on Broadway!
Running away from home with his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), Nate goes to New York in the hopes of auditioning for the musical…until he runs into a few hiccups involving his aunt (Lisa Kudrow) and brother (Joshua Bassett). Of course, the film follows the most straightforward A to Z story possible, so you already know everything that will happen to Nate from the first moment you hear the word “Broadway” in the movie. But that doesn’t matter so much since the movie is one of the better Disney+ original films we currently have and is tons of fun to watch for the whole family.
Federle is already a familiar creative voice in the Disney+ musical sphere, having worked on HSMTMTS (that title is quite a mouthful, I won’t type the whole thing every time from now on) with Joshua Bassett, who is also in this movie. Unfortunately, Bassett is the film’s weakest link. You literally cannot tell his performance apart as Nate’s brother and Ricky Bowen in the Disney+ show. There are times when I legitimately thought that Ricky was helping his half-brother in New York since he had the same facial and verbal expressions in his line deliveries. Maybe that was the point, but I don’t think it was since his character is the polar opposite of who Ricky is in HSMTMTS.
For once, he doesn’t even like music (a major red flag), but when he nonchalantly reacts to Nate being in New York and going viral on TikTok, it was Ricky Bowen once again. And even if you can’t differentiate his performance from other acting roles, it’s also a shame that Bassett is criminally underused here. He almost has nothing to do but complain about Nate and his musical dreams ad nauseam until they magically reconcile…because the plot needs it.
Unfortunately, running at only 91 minutes, Better Nate Than Ever sacrifices significant bouts of character development that could’ve given greater depth to the movie, such as Nate’s relationship with his brother and her aunt Heidi. Lisa Kudrow is a terrific actress and has tons of fun here, but, like Bassett, she’s incredibly underused and reduced to a simple “aunt” character with not much to do, especially when the crux of her character is to give massive inspiration to our protagonist. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much time to inspire Nate, as the movie swiftly moves from one scene to the next to get from point Z as quickly as possible, barely giving the audience room to breathe.
Katie McQuerrey’s rapid editing techniques are highly reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s quick shots in Hot Fuzz and keep the pace moving. As a result, the audience is engaged from start to finish, even if some of it is underdeveloped. Thankfully, what should really work in this movie does indeed work brilliantly. For starters, Wood is a revelation.
He’s infectiously charming, naturally funny when he has to and brings excellent dramatic pull during the film’s final act that could slightly bubble up any susceptible audience member. In addition, he shares amazing chemistry with Aria Brooks, who’s as charming as Wood, bringing in a certain level of deadpan line deliveries that even the greatest child actors in film history can’t do. She’s that special. And to have to *great* leads be the central emotional core of the movie is perfect because it elevates the film’s predictable script and makes us forget about its less-polished moments.
Its musical numbers are also terrifically staged and choreographed. Declan Quinn’s careful cinematography, with great use of vivid colors, pairs well with McQuerrey’s fast-paced editing and Federle’s staging of Nate’s musical journey. Sure, some of it is clichéd, but the songs are catchy, and the choreography is Broadway-level. Federle understands how a stage musical should be transposed on-screen, emphasizing spotlights and colors and making the camera move for its cuts to naturally arrive at the right moment to recreate the rhythm of a stage play that we’d typically see in person. Again, the songs have great rhythms and surprising emotional punches to move Nate’s story along in an admirable (and engaging) fashion for all ages involved.
Yes, it’s a tad unfortunate that Better Nate Than Ever doesn’t explore our protagonist’s relationship with his brother and aunt as it should’ve. Still, its impeccable musical numbers, memorable songs, and two stunning performances from child prodigies (no, really, Brooks and Wood should be on everyone’s radar now) ensures the film is a fun and light-hearted time for families looking for a great movie night on Disney+. And even if you weren’t impressed by the last season of HSMTMTS, you should definitely give Better Nate Than Ever a chance because you never know what can surprise you in the end.
Better Nate Than Ever is now streaming on Disney+.