Ever since the High School Musical phenomenon in 2006, Disney Channel has been increasingly ambitious and aggressive with its newer made-for-TV movies. The latest in a long string of teen-oriented musicals, Descendants, attempts to cash in on nostalgia and our fond memories of classic Disney animated stories.
Descendants takes several classic Disney characters from our favorite animated films and gives them a new avatar. Four famous villains are most prominent: Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty), The Evil Queen (Snow White), Jafar (Aladdin) and Cruella (One Hundred and One Dalmatians). However, it’s their kids who are front and center this time around. The story follows the four children of these villains, as they get a shot at a better life thanks to Prince Ben (son of Belle and the Beast). The four “rotten” kids are shipped off to Auradon Prep, where the children of famous “good” characters study together. However, Maleficent sees this as a golden opportunity to regain her power, and forces her daughter Mal to steal the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand. Mal and the rest of the villain kids must now make a choice: fit in and be good or carry on their parents’ evil legacy?
Surprisingly, this movie isn’t as annoying or cringe-worthy as we would have imagined, although it ends up being rather weak and forgettable. From the modern marketing campaign, you wouldn’t have guessed that this film is actually a pseudo-musical in disguise. I say “pseudo-musical” because, although there are a total of seven songs in the film (including one cover and an end credits song by Shawn Mendes), they seem too few and far apart. The movie’s nearly two hour runtime doesn’t help. The musical numbers seem too forced and tacked on and, instead of adding to the charm of the film, they drag it down. This is surprising when one considers that Kenny Ortega, who helmed all three smash-hit High School Musical films, is the director here too (Side note: although I didn’t particularly like it, the song “Rotten to the Core” stayed stuck in my head for hours).
That’s not to say that Descendants is a bad film. It does have some sparkling moments. Dove Cameron steals the show as Mal, daughter of the evil Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth, who also gets a song). In fact, the entire story belongs to Mal alone. I found myself rooting for her by the time the movie ended. Evie (pronounced “eevee”, played by Sofia Carson) is the self-absorbed daughter of Snow White’s Evil Queen. She generates a ton of laughs, mostly due to her girly, prince-obsessed nature. Meanwhile, Jafar’s son Jay is a compulsive stealer and popular with the girls at school. And Carlos, Cruella’s son, is terrified of dogs. That is, until he realizes how adorable they truly are. Kristin Chenoweth plays Maleficent brilliantly. She brings down the house in a “Defying Gravity”-eqsue Broadway number, which is a stark contrast to her days as Glinda the Good in Wicked. The same can’t be said for the other three villains, who are too clumsy and weak to make any impact on the story.
Disney fans will freak out over the tons of references that this film makes. The film opens with the traditional storybook, which actually turns out to be a tablet. Costumes (for example, the Fairy Godmother’s) are true to the original characters but have a modern edge. Many characters, such as Mulan, Cinderella, and Aurora, have kids at the school too, not to mention the seven dwarfs. Artifacts from countless Disney films, such as the magic wand, the Evil Queen’s box containing the heart, the magic mirror, the spinning wheel, and so on show up in the movie. Sharp-eyed fans will notice hidden Mickeys, decorations, and objects (such as a Lumiere candelabra) hidden all throughout the film. And finally, there is a special musical treat for Beauty and the Beast fans.
From the ambitious marketing campaign, its obvious that Disney wants Descendants to become the next big thing. It doesn’t reach the heights of similar films like Halloweentown or even Twitches, but it’s certain that it will be far more widely embraced. The ending of the film even hints at a sequel, which suggests that Disney might have a Descendants franchise in the pipeline.
Part High School Musical and part Once Upon a Time, Descendants tries a little too hard to capture the magic of classic Disney (and succeeds somewhat). It does have a story, albeit a weak one, that would fit in with any Disney animated classic. I just wish the execution would have been a little classier, slightly more cohesive, and a little less cheesy. That said, Descendants does a great job pandering to the preteen audience it targets. Descendants is harmless, forgettable fun for Disney fans of all ages.
Descendants premieres on Friday, July 31 on Disney Channel.
Buy Descendants on DVD: Amazon
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes