I feel like I should preface this review with a bit of background on where I’m coming from. I’m nineteen years old now, but watching the Disney Channel was a huge part of my childhood. The High School Musical movies were a big deal to me then and still are now, and it’s because of my love for those movies that I’m being brought back to the Disney Channel now as a sophomore in college for the latest Disney Channel Original Movie, Descendants 2, which comes to us from High School Musical director Kenny Ortega. Kenny is the creative force behind so many of the movies I’ve grown up loving, and now as a film student and an aspiring filmmaker myself, my respect for Kenny goes beyond just childhood nostalgia.
I honestly didn’t expect to like the first Descendants film very much at all, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it — I didn’t just like it, I sort of loved it. I haven’t invested in the franchise much aside from the first film, but I couldn’t not watch the sequel, especially because it’s once again directed by Kenny Ortega. He delivered what I thought was a stellar sequel to High School Musical with High School Musical 2, so I was confident going in to Descendants 2 that he would deliver be able to deliver a good sequel here as well.
And boy, did he. I found Descendants 2 to be every bit as fun and enjoyable as the first film, and dare I say, I think it’s even better.
Descendants 2 picks up roughly six months after the events of the first film, and sees Ben (Mitchell Hope), now King of Auradon, trying to help the “Villain Kids” — Mal (Dove Cameron), Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Boyce), and Jay (Booboo Stewart) — adjust to life in Auradon, the happily-ever-after kingdom formerly ruled by Ben’s parents, Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and the Beast (Dan Payne). When Mal struggles with the pressure of royalty, she goes home to the Isle of the Lost, where she finds that Uma (China Anne McClain), daughter of Ursula the Sea Witch, has taken over as ruler with some help from Harry (Thomas Doherty), son of Captain Hook, and Gil (Dylan Playfair), son of Gaston. Evie, Carlos, and Jay disguise Ben as a villain, and the group heads to the Isle to find Mal and hopefully convince her to return to Auradon.
If there was anything super divisive about the first film, it was the casting and characterizations of the Disney villains themselves. I felt like Kathy Najimy, as lovely as she is, was horribly miscast as the Evil Queen, and I felt like some of the others were written in ways that were bizarrely inconsistent with their animated counterparts. I did like Kristin Chenoweth’s take on Maleficent, although it was admittedly a drastic departure from previous iterations of the character. This time around, though, it really is all about the Descendants because none of the villains that appeared in the first film reprise their roles in this sequel. Ursula, Uma’s mother, is technically in the film, although even her role is limited to an off-screen cameo appearance. (If you listen closely, you might just recognize the voice of the Sea Witch as a recently named Disney Legend!)
I think the decision to focus less on the original villains and more on the Descendants themselves was ultimately a smart one. Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Cameron Boyce, and Booboo Stewart are all likable enough to carry the movie on their own, as is Mitchell Hope, whose character Ben is oddly absent from the marketing for the film. (He isn’t even included on the poster!) Everyone steps up their acting game for round two, especially Sofia Carson, who brings more sincerity and dimension to her role as Evie this time around. Mitchell Hope is given more to work with here, too, and while I think he’s generally a pretty good actor, he’s never quite able to pull off singing. He mostly looks awkward and uncomfortable when it comes time for him to sing, and I’m sure that that’s mostly because he’s not much of a singer himself — someone by the name of Jeff Lewis actually does most of the singing for the character, both in this film and in the first one.
China Anne McClain is the most notable addition to the cast of the first film, and I have to give kudos to whoever thought to cast her, because her performance really elevates this film. She’s given the opportunity to steal the show, and she absolutely does. Thomas Doherty makes quite an impression in his role as the suave, hunky descendant of Captain Hook, while Dylan Playfair does the best he can with what he’s given in his mostly one-note role as the brainless son of Gaston.
If there’s any character in the film that should have been left out altogether, it’s Dude, Carlos’ dog, who becomes able to speak early on in the film after accidentally consuming a magic potion. His voice is provided by Saturday Night Live veteran Bobby Moynihan, who I like very much, but even he can’t save the flat dialogue he’s given by writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott. It’s just bizarre and detracts from the film every time it happens.
I remember reading somewhere that the idea to make the first Descendants film a musical did not come about until pretty late in the game, long after the screenplay was already written. I think Descendants 2 does a much better job of incorporating songs into the narrative, and for the most part, the music is as good, if not better, than the music in the first film. The opening number “Ways to Be Wicked” and Uma’s “What’s My Name” are the standouts here, while songs like “Space Between” and “You and Me” are more of your typical Disney Channel fare. (You can read more about my thoughts on the music in Descendants 2 by reading my review of the soundtrack here.)
I watched the film on the Disney Channel, where it clocked in at just a few minutes over two hours with three or four commercial breaks. As much as I enjoyed the film, I have to admit that I did find myself a little bored about halfway through, during an impressive but drawn out sword-fighting sequence. Thankfully, though, things really pick up in the third act, and the stakes are raised in a way that I felt the first film didn’t but should have. I was totally invested in what was happening, and I was genuinely shocked by some of the twists and revelations near the end of the film, which really are too good to spoil here. It’s in the last twenty or so minutes of the film that it actually surpasses the original and reaches the dramatic, emotional heights of something worthy of the big screen.
Descendants 2 isn’t perfect, but it checks all the boxes for what you would want from a sequel (and even more). It’s bigger and bolder than the first film but maintains everything that made Descendants so special. If a third film is made, and I hope it is, I would absolutely like to see a third outing follow in the footsteps of the High School Musical films with a bigger budget and a full-blown theatrical release.
Descendants 2 is available on DVD — but not on Blu-ray, sadly — on August 15. It isn’t available for pre-order on Amazon because of an ongoing dispute between Disney and Amazon, but you’ll still be able to purchase it on its release date here.
If you watched Descendants 2, what did you think? Did you love it as much as I did? What do you want to see in a Descendants 3? And most importantly, are you Team Mal or Team Uma? Sound off in the comments!
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes