Once upon a time, Kenny Ortega directed a Disney Channel Original Movie that became an unstoppable franchise named High School Musical. And once upon a (far more recent) time, Disney began plucking classic characters out of their animated homes and plopping them into live action screen adaptations. Combine the two elements, and you’ve got Descendants, an admirable effort to bring fairy tale magic to a modern, well, high school musical.
Of course, Descendants is far from perfect. Do all the leather costumes make the cast look like they just stepped off the set of Power Rangers? Yes. Are some lines (e.g. “I don’t know what love feels like”) incredibly cringe-worthy? Yes. Does the sequence for Dove Cameron’s solo ballad, “If Only,” look phoned in, considering how Ortega was previously able to direct Vanessa Hudgens leaning against lockers and giant posters of Zac Efron for a similar tune, instead of relying on flashbacks of the scenes you were just watching? Yes. Is it kind of strange that all of the villains are single parents who happened to have children at the exact same time and somehow live in the slums just because they don’t have magic, while all of the good kids have both parents and riches and natural-colored hair? Sure, but let’s not think too hard about that one.
But for Disney’s target demographic, it’s unlikely any of those faults will register. Descendants moves quickly through its two-hour-long running time, builds momentum off of a handful of peppy tunes (including an update to Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest”), and delivers a colorful confection that’s sure to impress the younger crowd.
For the older, well, it’s fun to see Disney’s take on where their biggest villains ended up. They’re trapped on an inescapable, Wi-Fi-free island called the “Isle of the Lost,” where Maleficent (a game and scene-stealing Kristin Chenoweth clearly relishing her chance to play the opposite of Glinda), the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy), Jafar (Maz Jobrani), and Cruella de Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson) have had children of their own (and named them after themselves, natch). Meet their children, respectively: Mal (Dove Cameron), Evie (Sofia Carson), Jay (Booboo Stewart), and Carlos (Cameron Boyce).
Thanks to their upbringing, the kids believe they’re headed for a life of evil—though they don’t demonstrate much evildoing, apart from taking a lollipop from a baby—until they’re invited by Ben (Mitchell Hope), the goodhearted son of Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and the now-human Beast (Dan Payne), to leave their Isle and head to
Oregon Auradon, where the “good” live, and where the progeny of Disney’s heroes and heroines attend Auradon Prep. Naturally, Maleficent has a different goal in mind for the foursome, commanding Mal and her friends to steal the Fairy Godmother’s (Melanie Paxson) wand so they can open the path between the island and the mainland, so she and the varsity villains can wreak their classic havoc on Auradon.
At first, the gang has no problem following orders, immediately tracking the wand to a museum and attempting to steal it. Mal, however, begins to question her penchant for evil in one of the film’s stronger musical scenes when she sees her mother’s wax figure in the museum’s Hall of Villains. She launches into a duet with Chenoweth’s Maleficent about living up to expectations and coming of age and, well, you get the idea. Things only get tougher when each villain-to-be easily assimilates to the new surroundings: Jay becomes the star of the school’s “tourney” team, Evie discovers she can achieve good grades without the help of her handheld magic mirror, Carlos gets over his fear of dogs, and Mal furthers her mother’s plot by becoming the school’s resident hairdresser. These four are supposed to be misunderstood, evil outcasts, not the popular kids!
Eventually, the high school high jinks lead to Mal casting a love spell on Ben so she can steal him away from Sleeping Beauty’s daughter Audrey (Sarah Jeffery) and stand near the magic wand at his coronation ceremony. (How evil!) It works… until she begins falling in love with Ben and wavers on her determination to ruin the good of Auradon and its people because she sees how kind they can be. (How good! Look, not even Maleficent’s daughter can resist living her own Cinderella story.) Despite the twist, the romance threatens to grind the film to a complete stop—no fairy tale can continue after its happy ending, after all—but Maleficent thankfully returns during the coronation to steal the show once again.
There, she and Mal face off. Maleficent steals the wand and tries to ruin the royal family, but when Mal tearfully steps in, Maleficent goes full dragon (albeit using some budget visual effects) and tries to eat (sort of?) the disobedient foursome. But Mal overpowers her and casts a spell that turns her into a small, non-threatening lizard. Thanks, magic!
Though Chenoweth stole much of the show, Cameron also does a more-than-capable job of carrying the film as Mal, sporting a manic glint in her eye for much of the first half and a confused teen in the second. That said, she leads an otherwise forgettable teen cast: Her fellow villain children do little aside from providing comic relief, though Carson’s given some slightly meatier scenes to play with as the naive Evie. And as for the “good” children they meet, including Dopey’s son Doug (Zachary Gibson), Fairy Godmother’s daughter Jane (Brenna D’Amico), and Mulan’s daughter Lonnie (Dianne Doan), the film barely fills in their characters, relying on their parents’ names to give them any weight.
With all that said, the film is earnest in its message (be yourself, kids!) and the music injects fun to the tale (even though none of the tunes reach Frozen-level catchiness). Disney Channel’s primary audience will likely fall under the Descendants’ spell, and the story’s cross-generational story scratches just deep enough under the surface to appeal to older members of the family as well. In other words, it’s a standard Disney Channel Original Movie—with some added magic and Kristin Chenoweth.