Charles Perrault’s Cinderella has been adapted so many times on the big screen, through faithful and derivative adaptations, that we now know the beat-for-beat story. Disney’s animated Cinderella adaptation is a timeless classic that will transcend future generations as one of the finest and most influential animated films ever made. Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action remake is also terrific. But since we know the story by heart and that the story will be re-adapted countless times and spun into so many settings, any filmmaker that approaches Perrault’s tale needs to reinvent the wheel. Sony attempted to do that last year, and it was a disaster. Now, Disney has taken another crack at the tale in a gender-swapped re-tread with Sneakerella, and…well…let’s just say that there are worse adaptations.
In Sneakerella, we follow El (Chosen Jacobs), an aspiring sneaker designer, living with his evil stepfather (Bryan Terrell Clark) and stepbrothers (Kolton Stewart and Hayward Leach). El’s stepbrothers hate his guts and want to move to New Jersey to follow their dreams, while our protagonist is forced to work tireless hours at his family’s sneaker store without any reward. One day, he meets Kira King (Lexi Underwood), the daughter of a former basketball player, now sneaker mogul (can you imagine that), Darius King (John Salley), and they quickly fall in love. In typical Cinderella fashion, El goes to King’s gala and leaves his shoe for Kira to find him…and we all know what will happen after that.
The movie even has the nerve to remind the audience that we’re watching “a Cinderella story” as if we didn’t know what we would see after pressing play on Disney+. Still, it’s about as predictable and non-eventful as most Cinderella re-treads are. When a book has been adapted and reworked countless times in film and television, none of it seems to feel fresh, mainly when it retains the same emotional beats as the original “Disneyfied” adaptation of Perrault’s story did. And so there’s a desperate need to feel like you’re watching something different, or else the movie will feel like another mild enjoyment for kids and not much fun for adults who are watching it with them.
For the most part, Sneakerella tries to reinvent the wheel through its songs, which reminded me of a lot of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intricate rhymes. Most of them are pretty good, mainly “Work Up,” “Life Is What You Make It,” and the final rap battle between Jacobs and Salley. Heck, the rap battle is the most exciting sequence of the film. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that both actors bring their total A-game and have so much fun rhyming together that you can’t help but start to swell up once the battle reaches its emotional apex. And, yes, the payoff at the end feels incredibly satisfying, but one you can see a mile away if you’ve seen any adaptation of Cinderella. But the film takes its sweet time before we get there.
Running at almost two hours, Sneakerella drags in so many places, especially when it starts to repeat story elements explained to the audience a couple of minutes before. For example, how often does El’s stepfather tell our protagonist that he needs to wake up from his fantasy world and start working in real life? Or how about every single time his stepbrothers are on screen, they need to remind us, all the time, that they hate him, even going so far as to sign a song to solidify that hate (it’s also the worst song of the movie)? I think we get it after a couple of repetitions. Still, this flaw undermines the emotional crux of the film, which is supposed to be about El’s blossoming quest to find true love with Kira, and live happily ever after.
And, in that regard, the movie succeeds at delivering a safe, albeit terribly formulaic, story, with two good performers in the lead. Jacobs and Underwood have great chemistry together, but their screen time feels so limited that it’s almost impossible to make us feel for both of them as the film progresses. In addition, the movie spends more time with El’s best friend, Sami (Devyn Nakoda, who is very good, mind you, but is not supposed to be the film’s central character) than with Kira. But, of course, that’s Cinderella for you. Still, since you have more time than the animated original and have lots of creative leeway through its musical numbers and take many liberties with its story, it now seems like the perfect time to spin things up and deliver the ultimate re-tread of Cinderella for tweens.
Unfortunately, Sneakerella stays in the same predictable beats as Cinderella without trying to spin it up a bit. Yes, the performances are pretty good all around, some of the songs are well written, and its musical numbers are pretty fun to watch, but it isn’t enough for me to say that I had a great time watching it. Moreover, its nearly two-hour runtime made it a pretty tiresome watch, even if it does have some redeeming qualities throughout. I guess the best derivative Cinderella adaptation remains Ella Enchanted–a film that will be regarded as one of the great cult classics of the early 2000s.
Sneakerella is now streaming on Disney+.