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Disney+’s Better Nate Than Ever Review: A Fun Family Adventure With a Broadway Spin

Better Nate Than Ever will speak to theater kids, not to mention the people that love them.

B etter Nate Than Ever Musical sequence
(Image: © Disney+)

Considering the number of great musicals, both animated and live-action, that can currently be found on Disney+, it’s a safe bet that the streaming service is a favorite of theater kids, both current and former, the world over. As such, it’s the absolute perfect place to see Tim Federle's Better Nate Than Ever, a new original movie about a teenager chasing a dream of Broadway stardom. Whether or not you’ve ever found yourself in Nate’s particular shoes, there a lot that kids and adults will likely find to enjoy from this simple and infectious story of pursing one's passions.

Nate (Reuby Wood) is a middle school theater kid. We meet him on the day that the cast list is going up for the school musical, and from the word go it seems guaranteed that Nate is going to be the star. It’s clear that nobody loves the stage more than he does. Even his friend Libby (Aria Brooks), the only one who really “gets” Nate and who loves the theater too, isn't as crazy about the idea of performing. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite Nate’s way.

However, Nate’s real dream is Broadway itself, and that door opens when he learns there’s an open audition for a new Broadway show based on Disney's Lilo and Stitch. Nate and Libby orchestrate circumstances at home, allowing them to run off to New York so that our protagonist can at least take the shot at the big stage. 

Better Nate Than Ever is a fun family movie about chasing dreams. 

Better Nate Than Ever is written and directed by Tim Federle, based on the novel he also wrote. As such, to call this one a “passion project” would certainly be something of an understatement. The movie is a love letter to the theater and to the people who love it, and even if that’s not you, it’s difficult to not fall in love with the story and the characters. The main narrative is the same, though in the book the musical Nate auditions for is based on E.T. (obviously that had to be changed to a different alien creature because of IP and rights issues).

The film's endearing energy comes from the strong casting of Reuby Wood and Aria Brooks. This is Brooks’ biggest screen role in a young career, and the first on-screen role ever for Wood. It seems quite fitting that so much of Better Nate Than Ever is about the struggle to put forth the perfect audition. One imagines the road taken to play Nate was not unlike Nate’s own journey in the story.  

Rueby Wood and Aria Brooks are the perfect team in Better Nate Than Ever. 

In addition to having a passionate love of showtunes that most kids in middle school don’t have, Nate is different in many other ways as well. Nate’s chasing of, and attempt to embrace, his dream can also be read as Nate embracing his true self. While never stated outright in the film, it’s implied that Nate is gay. It’s done in such a way that has become unfortunately all too common for Disney, where it is implied without being clear, and brought up and dropped all in a single scene, but it is there.

In this case at leas, it makes some sense that the topic is not a major focus of the plot. Nate is young, and romance isn’t what this movie is about. And at the end of the day, even the implication is important. Nate is certainly the youngest character in a Disney movie to even suggest an orientation other than straight. Whether or not this film’s young audience loves Broadway, there will be many kids watching for whom this could be an important moment.

While calling something a “kid’s movie” has something of a pejorative connotation, Better Nate Than Ever is a kid’s movie – though that shouldn’t be taken inherently as a slight. The book the movie is based on is meant for younger readers and that audience focus remains intact in the film. The obstacles and conflicts that Nate comes up against are largely of the kid variety. The stakes of the movie never feel particularly serious.

Better Nate Than Ever isn’t very deep or complex, but that’s part of the charm. 

The primary adult story focuses on Lisa Kudrow as Nate’s aunt, a Broadway actress in her own right, though perhaps one not quite as successful as Nate believes. She has her own aspirations and unfulfilled dreams. She fits into the story well, though not quite enough is given to her character arc, so what’s supposed to be an emotional story of its own doesn’t quite have the weight the movie wants it to have.

These elements together combine in a way that means that Better Nate Than Ever doesn't pack quite the emotional punch that it intends to deliver. It's fine and it's fun, but even if you're the sort who tends to get emotional at animated Disney or Pixar films, you may not need to reach for the tissues with this one. 

Better Nate Than Ever is a story about finding your people, and one certainly hopes that the people this movie was made for will find it. Anybody else looking for a fun movie to share with the family will also enjoy it, but for the right people this one will mean something. 

Dirk Libbey
Dirk Libbey

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.