Glancing at Alberto Belli’s filmography, he might seem an odd choice to be tapped for the Disney+ original The Naughty Nine. But a deeper look into his output reveals a filmmaker who can deliver energy and fun with a pinch of fantasy or supernatural (Gatlopp). So, how does the director handle the required Disney magic?
Written by Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas, The Naughty Nine follows the clever but highly mischievous Andy (Winslow Fegley). The 5th grader is constantly called to the principal’s office for misdeeds or pranks. The day before winter break begins, Andy and his best friend Dulce (Camila Rodriguez) pull off a daring heist to reclaim confiscated toys from earlier in the school year and sell them back to their schoolmates. At home, Andy fights with his younger sister, Laurel (Madilyn Kellam), mainly mocking her for never being the best in her gymnastics class.
On Christmas, Andy and Dulce do not receive the presents they want from Santa: a video game console and a bow and arrow set, respectively. Their mutual friend Lewis (Anthony Joo) deduces they must be on the naughty list. Andy believes it is unfair that Santa Claus decides who deserves presents and who does not. So, he recruits several other “naughty listers,” along with Dulce and Lewis, to break into Santa’s workshop and steal their presents. But this is easier said than done, as the North Pole teems with elves working to ensure an excellent Christmas. Oh yeah, there’s also the little matter of getting their 10-year-old selves to the top of the world. Will the naughty nine be caught by Santa or the elves? Does Andy learn what it means to be a good kid?
“…break into Santa’s workshop and steal their presents.”
The Naughty Nine is a charming kid-centric adventure. The stakes feel appropriately high considering the target demographic, and there’s a sense of danger in a few scenes. The action sequences are exciting, specifically the getaway with the presents in tow. The way the heist combines everyone’s skills, from clothing design to hacking (well, the movie version of it, at least) to gymnastics, showcases what each kid brings to the table and gives them a moment to shine. Yes, the CGI is sometimes a little off, specifically when Laurel has to use her skills to cross a chasm. But the sheer energy the director and director of photography Anthony Wolberg brings to the proceedings is infectious and overcomes any such quibbles.
However, the highlight of the film is the costume and set designs. The costumes, especially those whipped up by Jon Anthony (Deric McCabe) to disguise everyone as elves, are vibrantly colored and add a lived-in feel to this fantasy world. The North Pole sets are expansive and create a world as tangible as the real one. The security room is incredibly cool, with the vents and monitors looming large.
The Naughty Nine is a breath of fresh air from the usual holiday fare. Yes, it still has that feel-good message that so many Christmas titles have, but it goes about it uniquely. Belli directs with confidence and maintains a good pace to keep the fun up.
"…a breath of fresh air from the usual holiday fare."