The concept of a naughty list worked its magic on me as a kid, a reminder when I was being bad that Santa Claus was watching, and my behavior could impact what my next Christmas looked at. In The Naughty Nine, a covert group of kids (and one adult) team up to infiltrate the North Pole to change their fate. This family-friendly twist on the classic heist genre makes for festive holiday fun this winter.
Neither Andy (Winslow Fegley, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made) nor his best friend Dulce (Camila Rodriguez) received Christmas presents from Santa this year. Often in trouble with their teachers and parents, they realize they made the naughty list and that there must be a room full of presents waiting for them at the North Pole. So they recruit a crackerjack team of naughty experts to join them on a mission to take back the presents they should’ve received. There’s genius Lewis (Anthony Joo, New Amsterdam), animal whisperer Rose (Clara Stack, Hawkeye), Andy’s older sister and gymnast Laurel (Madilyn Kellam, Afterwalker), master of disguise Jon Anthony (Deric McCabe, A Wrinkle in Time), the adorable innocent Albert (Ayden Elijah), getaway driver Ha-Yoon (Imogen Cohen, The Fairly Oddparents), and an adult pilot Bruno (Derek Theler, Baby Daddy), disgraced after he reported seeing flying reindeer.
From Disney Branded Television, The Naughty Nine is a “Disney Original Movie,” the 2023 equivalent of the Disney Channel Original Movie. With an increased production budget than DCOMs of the past, The Naughty Nine has a cinematic feel and was able to afford a screen legend to play Santa Claus – Danny Glover (The Color Purple, Lethal Weapon, Angels in the Outfield). Unlike ye olde DCOM, or the first branded Disney Original Movie (Prom Pact), The Naughty Nine doesn’t lean into Disney Channel’s current star power, although it does come from writers and executive producers Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas (co-creators of Raven’s Home), and director Alberto Belli has an episode of Ultra Violet & Black Scorpion on his credits.
While there are plenty of heist movies in the world (Oceans 11, The Italian Job, Drive), not many of them are kid-friendly. Disney’s National Treasure and Muppets Most Wanted are among a handful of examples that exist, and The Naughty Nine adds the rewatchable novelty of it being a holiday film. The concept is fun, and the execution is winning. All of the leads are likable, and while the core cast is large, the narrative primarily focuses on Andy and his sister Laurel, who become the heart of the film. But all of the characters have their The Wizard of Oz moment of realization, finding meaning and validation for their special skills through their adventure.
For a TV movie, the production values of The Naughty Nine are beautiful. The North Pole feels as ornate and magical as it does in your favorite Christmas classics. Digital set extensions, volumetric sets, and computer-animated characters (all the reindeer) help to create a convincing version of Santa’s village that fits into the public consciousness of what it should be. At the same time, the designers add their own timeless touches to this version of the North Pole, anchored by Danny Glover’s version of Santa Claus. With a story about naughty kids trying to steal Christmas back, ultimately, Santa’s role here is one of subtle parenting, steering kids to do the right thing on their own.
Ultimately, The Naughty Nine is a story about morality and doing what’s right. Bearing Disney’s name above the title, any wrongdoings the kids are seen doing are labeled as such. And like many Disney stories, each member of the team discovers how to use their own unique talents as a strength. Teamwork makes the dream work, and these kids (and one adult) make their dreams come true.
I give The Naughty Nine 4 out of 5 mugs of eggnog.
The Naughty Nine premieres Wednesday, November 22nd, at 8/7c on Disney Channel, followed by its streaming premiere on Disney+ on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 23rd.