Disney Channel Original movies are often hit or miss, most times ending up in the miss column. The obvious exception is the overwhelming success of Kenny Ortega’s High School Music franchise, which managed to go from small screen to big screen by its third outing. Other than this rarity, most of the films seems to disappear into obscurity. Sure, some develop cult followings. I’m almost positive there is someone reading this who is upset that I didn’t mention Halloweentown, however, as we all know, Disney generally only cares about the massive money makers compared to the fan favorites.
With Descendants, Disney has continued its trend of pulling popular classic characters from the old animated catalog and dropping them into the live action world. Here there seems to be some originality at work. Rather than the retelling of a classic in live action form, this time around we are treated to an original story line with new characters. In this film we get to meet the next generation of Disney Heroes and Villains and see whether they will continue on their parents’ path or forge a fate of their own.
Honestly, it was nice to see some originality here, as opposed to the typical retelling of the classic animated story in live action form. For this outing, Disney went with their favorite tween franchise maker Kenny Ortega in the directorial department, so you know there’s going to be some major lip syncing, excuse me, singing, and very choreographed dancing.
The plot is fairly straightforward. The movie starts out with a quick prologue told by the main descendant child, Mal, daughter of Maleficent. This prologue tries to make it clear that these are more or less modern day characters as much of the story being told is shown through some clever iPad-esque 3D storyboards. In fact, as Mal explains the Isle of the Lost, the place where the villains and company have been banished and imprisoned by magic, she laments about the lack of wi-fi.
Jumping into the story, we meet Ben, the soon to be king of The United States of Auradon, son to Belle and the Beast. Much to his parents’ dismay, Ben has decided that his first proclamation as king shall be to allow some of the villains’ children a chance at redemption and the opportunity to attend prep school with the heroes’ children. He chooses Mal, daughter of Maleficent; Evie, daughter of the Evil Queen; Jay, son of Jafar; and Carlos, son of Cruella De Vil. Basically, the worst of the worst.
Cut to these teenage villain descendants running amok in the streets of the Isle of the Lost as if they are Kevin Bacon letting off steam in some abandoned warehouse. We are introduced to all the kids as they attempt to lip sync their way through a dance-y number titled “Rotten to the Core”. The song is a little ‘meh’ and a bit too on the nose, as most Disney Channel songs are, but we clearly need the personality of these kids drilled into us before the first act comes to a close. So in case you haven’t figured it out yet, they’re rotten to the core. Get it? Because they’re the villains’ descendants. Just making sure everyone’s on the same page here.
In addition to the lazy lip syncing, the dancing for this number was a little off putting. It was almost too aggressive, but I suppose that’s the point. In fact, the entire introduction of these kids was almost enough for me to stop watching. I found it a little bizarre how whenever these characters sing they’re kind of looking directly at the camera. This happens a little more throughout the film but is not nearly as uncomfortably jarring as in this opening number.
I’d also like to mention that the Isle of the Lost seems devoid of any fabric other than leather, as the descendants are dressed in it from head to tow. There seemed to be no restraint in the costume department for fear of going overboard. It’s a little assaulting on the eyes and certainly adds to that jarring effect.
If you’re thinking about tuning out at this point, as I was tempted to, don’t. This is where the movie began to pick up for me.
Enter the classic Villains and parents to these dancing leather daddy hoodlums.
I would say watch this movie for no other reason than the classic Villains. I love Kathy Najimy as the Evil Queen, though I feel she was underutilized in this movie. She was fantastic comedic relief as Mary Sanderson in Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus but he just didn’t seem to use her the same way in this particular effort. Perhaps they’re saving her more for the sequel. Then there is Maz Jobrani as Jafar and Wendy Raquel Robinson as Cruella, neither of who I am very familiar with but did decent enough with their roles with what they were given. I was actually particularly fond of Robinson’s Grey Gardens-esque take on Cruella. Kristin Chenoweth as Maleficent is good fun and really steals the show in this department, however there were moments that I genuinely laughed at this collection of characters as a whole. They all seemed to work well together.
Back to the plot.
The villains inform their children they’ve been selected to attend the prep school in Auradon. The kids don’t want to go but Maleficent insists they must so that they can steal Fairy Godmother’s wand and release all those imprisoned on the Isle of the Lost. This is the real conflict of the film here. Will the kids follow the path of their parents or forge their own destiny?
I don’t want to go into too much more plot specifics at this point, but rather just some generalizations about the film.
The four descendants do a decent enough job. For me the real stand out was Sofia Carson as Evie. Her character’s lust for a prince made me chuckle several times throughout the movie. The other two boys were good enough. Again, their characters were not the main focus. Mal was clearly the center of the story, but like their adult Villain counterparts, the descendants worked well off each other.
The interaction between these kids and the other Disney descendants at the school is pretty fun as well. There’s Ben, son of Belle and the Beast, and future king of The United States of Auradon. He also plays the love interest for Mal. We also get to meet Jane, daughter of the fairy godmother; Audrey, daughter to Sleeping Beauty; Doug, the son of Dopey, and another one of the standout characters in my opinion. Then there’s Chad, the jerk son of Prince Charming and Cinderella, and Lonnie, daughter of Mulan.
In addition to Belle and Beast, we get to meet Fairy Godmother, played by Melanie Paxson. I have to say that she is one of my favorite characters in the movie and was perfectly cast. Paxson’s Fairy Godmother is charged with reforming the Villain descendants and the interaction between her and the kids always put a smile on my face. We also meet Snow White whose role is a telecaster during the royal inauguration. This prompts for some funny jokes from the adult Villains who watch on their TV from the Isle of the Lost.
Unlike the leather in the costume department, the movie itself seemed to show restraint in references to other Disney characters and movies, aside from what was being focused on. At some small points it felt like a missed opportunity, but for the majority I was actually impressed by that restraint. It kept the movie from feeling too over-crowded. Major props to the fact that there were no Frozen characters or references made at all.
When it comes to the music, I honestly kept forgetting it was a musical. Unlike the High School Musical franchise which seemed to have a song every 5-7 minutes, there were maybe only 6 musical numbers in this whole movie, compared to the 11 in High School Musical 2. With that said, I feel like a lot of the music was much more forgettable. I actually find quite a bit of High School Musical numbers to be relentlessly catchy. At the end of Descendants I had trouble recalling any of the music numbers. However, there is one major exception to that. Kristin Chenoweth’s one and only song in this movie “Evil Like Me” is beyond stand out. As soon as the movie finished I went back to watch it again. In fact, I purchased the soundtrack for that song alone. They did not waste the talent they had on hand here. It certainly felt like a Broadway-caliber number and perfectly fit the narrative and character arcs at work, unlike the other stuff that just felt a little forced. Again, there were no songs that were necessarily terrible. I just shouldn’t forget twice in one movie that I’m watching a musical.
The ratings for this Disney Channel Original movie have been fairly decent. On its Friday night premiere, Descendants had 6.6 million viewers according to Nielsen ratings. That makes it the most-watched cable TV movie of 2015. That’s in addition to the 1.4 million views the movie had over its 6 day pre-release on the WATCH Disney Channel app which apparently broke some records for that particular app. The soundtrack seems to be doing pretty well on iTunes as well. It currently sits as the number 1 in soundtracks and number 2 in albums. Disney Publishing Worldwide also released a prequel novel, Isle of the Lost, that has been doing fairly well on the New York Times Best Seller List sitting at number 1 in Children’s Middle Grade category, while the novelization of the movie sits at number 3.
Needless to say, I’m sure that a sequel is not far off. The movie actually ends with the audience blatantly being told that it’s not the end of the story. After all, there are plenty more animated characters they can pull into this live action realm, Villains and Heroes alike.
In closing, I would say there are worse things you could watch than Descendants. It’s a movie I wouldn’t mind watching more than once…and maybe already have. It definitely has its cringe worthy moments, but that seems a requirement for a Disney Channel Original movie these days. Overall I think it’s a clever lighthearted take on some classic properties and I for one will be interested to see the next entry in this franchise, as long as it involves another stand out Kristin Chenoweth ballad of course. Have some fun, watch it with a friend, poke some fun at it, and secretly fall in love with another Disney Channel Original hit.