The Naughty Nine (2023)

The Naughty Nine is Disney's new direct-to-streaming kid's heist adventure about a team of highly-skilled children breaking into Santa's workshop after being snubbed by the Jolly Old Elf on Christmas Eve. My guess is most of you are eyeing that premise the way I did, as a promising idea that most likely wouldn't be executed remotely well enough to work. Disney, after all, certainly wouldn't be my first choice of companies to tackle this sort of thing.

But I was pleasantly surprised, at least for the most part. It's that "most part" that's going to be a sticking point: the second act drags, and there's an "obey authority" message embedded in the subtext that doesn't sit well with me. Despite those issues, the characters are fun, the first act is delightful, and the actual emotional arcs are fulfilling enough to justify a recommendation, albeit a tepid one. Lindsay and I had fun with this, and if you're intrigued by the idea of a Christmas fantasy channeling equal parts Sky High and Home Alone (really more Unaccompanied Minors than Home Alone, but let's go with the reference everyone is familiar with), this is worth seeing.

I'm getting that out of the way up front, to give you a chance to opt out of the plot synopsis before I spoil the whole thing. This isn't an instant classic, but it's a solid flick I don't want to needlessly ruin for anyone who'd enjoy the experience. You've been warned. 

The movie's protagonist is Andy, played by Winslow Fegley, who's already amassing holiday cred at 14 thanks to starring in 8-Bit Christmas a few years ago. Andy is the movie's Danny Ocean (I'll leave it to you to decide whether it's a coincidence that "Danny" and "Andy" are one letter away from being an anagram). The opening has him in the middle of orchestrating a heist to steal back the entirety of his school's confiscated materials during the last day before Christmas vacation.

Andy's sister, Laurel (played by Madilyn Kellam), is a straight-shooter obsessed with seeing her brother face some sort of accountability for his actions. Similar to Candance in Phineas and Ferb, she tries to convince her parents that Andy is up to no good, but he's always one step ahead.

On Christmas, Andy finally experiences some consequences when Santa leaves him nothing, while his sister receives the gymnastics leotard she wanted. With the help of a computer prodigy friend, he assembles a list of highly skilled local kids similarly denied gifts due to bad behavior and puts together a team that includes an animal expert, a master of disguise, a master of voice manipulation, a daredevil driver, a kid who's mastered manipulating being cute, the aforementioned hacker, and a gymnast.

The gymnast, it should be noted, is his sister's rival, which only makes Laurel more adamant about busting her brother. When that gymnast backs out (she was only doing it to get a phone, which her parents eventually bought her), Andy uses Laurel's competitive nature to get her to agree to join the team, making her one of the two technically nice kids involved (the other being the hacker, who just really wants to see Santa's workshop). That's kind of the pattern for all of them in fact: they want their gifts, but really they're each motivated by some part of the experience (i.e.: driving a getaway sleigh down icy streets, interacting with magic reindeer, and so on).

The ninth member of the team is an adult - a pilot who encountered a flying reindeer. Andy enlists him with the promise of proving he wasn't imagining the experience. They feign mechanical issues to get permission to land and begin infiltrating the North Pole, a massive city built on a mountain culminating in a vault. The team splits up to perform their various tasks, several members get sidetracked at a party, things go wrong... you get the drill.

The important part is that Laurel, with Andy's help, learns to believe in herself but also starts to adopt her brother's attitude towards following the rules. When they finally reach the vault, the other kids collect the gifts intended for them, but Laurel - who already received her Christmas present - takes the one addressed to her rival, reasoning that she was the one who earned it. Seeing his sister callously steal is a shock to Andy.

The more immediate issue, however, is that they're detected, ending any hope of getting out undetected. There's a chase sequence through the North Pole culminating in the team having to jump from the sleigh into the already moving plane. Andy volunteers to go last but rather than toss over the gifts and jump, he stops the sleigh, effectively turning himself in and returning the gifts, minus the phone his sister stole.

He's taken to Santa, and the rest of the team joins him shortly, choosing to turn themselves in rather than leave Andy behind. I like this scene quite a bit - Glover's great in the role, and the movie doesn't take one of the more obvious copouts, such as having Santa aware of the heist the whole time or turning it into some kind of a test. He's less angry than frustrated; he wants the kids to be better, but he makes it clear that symbolic acts such as returning what they took and even fessing up aren't going to get them off the list. If they want to be "nice," they need to make that choice every day. They don't need to change who they are, but they need to put their talents to use for something other than selfish pursuits.

Everyone returns home, and we're briefly shown their experiences have changed them for the better. They're going to take Santa's speech to heart, but really each of them needed to see their skills and personalities in a new light, which occurred during the heist itself. Meanwhile, Andy and his sister have bonded and grown closer together.

We jump ahead a year later to find Andy being called to the principal's office, something that surprises him, as he's been keeping his nose clean. But when he gets to the office, he finds Santa masquerading as the principal. Andy begins professing his innocence, but Santa cuts him off - he's not here to get Andy in trouble. Rather, he's here because he's in a jam and needs the Naughty Nine for some kind of unspecified black ops mission.

For the record, it was the realization as the credits started to roll that I really want to see a sequel picking up where this left off that pushed me over the line to recommending this. So, yeah, if any Disney executives are reading (which I assume they are - I mean, why wouldn't Bob Igor have this site bookmarked?), please greenlight The Naughty Ten immediately.

But, again, that recommendation comes with some baggage. The opening, while admittedly childish, had the energy and flair of a heist film, but that energy drained away as soon as the team reached the North Pole. I kind of glossed over the second act in my synopsis for a reason - while there's some decent character work here, the overall feel just kind of downshifts into that of a generic kid's Christmas fantasy for a while. Aside from Santa himself, this version of the North Pole isn't all that interesting.

Though... sorry, sidenote time: it's never really addressed, but every shot we see of the North Pole in the movie is at night. I'm not sure if that was because the adventure is supposed to be set over the course of one night (which it technically is), or maybe if they just realized they'd save some money on effects. But, intentional or not, this has the side effect of avoiding one of my personal pet peeves, in which the North Pole (an area which is in perpetual darkness for the entirety of winter) appears in daylight on Christmas. So regardless of the reason, I appreciate the result. 

Unfortunately, the action sequences - in particular the chase - are dull and unimpressive. The kids are really only being followed by a handful of relatively unimposing Christmas elves on snow machines, which makes the sequence feel anticlimactic and lacking in suspense. Like most heist flicks, The Naughty Nine is largely built on the idea this is a team of exceptional individuals capable of exceptional feats. Several of them have what amount to low-level superpowers (the animal expert seems to literally be able to communicate with animals, for example). Failing to present them with appropriate obstacles weakens that premise.

I was also bothered that the movie ultimately embraced the message kids should follow rules and do as those in power command. It's particularly grating because the movie establishes rebellion against that idea as a motive driving several of the kids, including Andy. Having them abandon that philosophy at the end comes across as moralizing.

That said, the issue is somewhat alleviated by the movie focusing more on the kid's emotional arcs, rather than moral lessons. In context, Andy's choice at the end has some weight to it - as I said, I really like that section.

Likewise, while the movie is unable to sustain it, the first act really does deliver the fun of a heist flick. Yeah, it's all toned down for its target demographic, but watching kids mastermind an elaborate break-in while exploiting adults' sympathies and trust in children is simply delightful. The rest of the movie is still fun and humorous, but this section was really entertaining - I can't stress that enough.

I also want to call attention to the movie's diversity, which includes a surprising (for Disney, at least) amount of LGBT+ inclusion: one of the more significant kid's parents are a gay couple, one of the kids is heavily implied to be gay (to the point that I don't think it's even intended to be ambiguous), and a non-binary actor (Cihang Ma) plays the elf I'm fairly certain has the most screentime.

Turning to the holidays, there are a few aspects of this worth exploring in more detail. First, the concept of a North Pole heist has of course been done before - Bump in the Night: Twas the Night Before Bumpy springs to mind as another case where the robbers were the protagonists. But even when the crime is being carried out by the antagonists, it's not uncommon to see the break-in framed in ways echoing the heist genre, such as in The Powerpuff Girls: The Fight Before Christmas (Clement Moore's getting a surprising number of references in this paragraph, isn't he?).

The other thing worth noting is that, due to its leads reacting to the aftermath of Christmas, most of the movie is set after the 25th. I don't think that makes this any less of a Christmas movie (take your pick between "it's about Santa" or "still during the Twelve Days of Christmas" as your preferred justification, if you feel you need one), but it does differentiate this from the vast majority of holiday entertainment.

While this one isn't a slam dunk, there's more than enough here to make it worth checking out, assuming the genre (by which I'm referring to "kid's movies") isn't a deal-breaker. The Naughty Nine is uneven, but it does a solid job integrating enough fun from heist movies into its fantasy adventure to make for an enjoyable experience.

And I really do mean it when I say it left me wanting more. Get on it, Disney.