FEARLESSRiOT RETRO REVIEW: Disney’s Descendants

One very novel idea became the concept for the next big DCOM Movie franchise. When news was announced that Disney was set to release a project about the offspring of famous Disney villains, the idea seemed like a decent and creative one from my viewpoint. That is assuming you can put aside the fact that most Disney villains gruesomely die at the end of their films. As was the case with three of the villains featured in this film, Maleficent, Jafar, and Evil Queen. They’re joined by canine-obsessive Cruella De Vil and together, their children rule the streets of The Isle of the Lost. Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos are the Descendants and this week, they’ll be returning for more with the sequel, which has included former A.N.T. Farm lead China Anne McClain as the daughter of Ursula. (She was also the voice of Facilier‘s daughter in the animated shorts, but I guess that character isn’t canon in the live-action universe.) What better way to celebrate the return of these young troublemaking children of troublemakers than to give the original movie a review. Sure, the original film is only two years old, but if last year’s WrestleMania is retro enough for this review series, so is this. Buckle up because this is the first official Retro Review that’s not on a wrestling event or an award show; a look back on the first film in the Disney’s Descendants franchise.

The PlotThe Plot

Remember Jafar exploding after the melting of his lamp in The Return of Jafar? Remember the Evil Queen meeting her demise from the collaborative effort of lightning, a giant boulder, and some hungry vultures? Remember when Cruella De Vil’s obsession with dogs led her straight to the slammer? Remember when Maleficent was stabbed and fell into a pit to her death? Let’s just assume that this movie takes place on an alternative plane where none of that is canon; Cruella is no longer serving time and the other three otherwise deceased villains are alive and well, banished to a location called the Isle of the Lost. Even though they are there, however, the film isn’t primarily about them. The focus, as the title suggests, is instead on their children Mal (Dove Cameron), Evie (Sofia Carson), Jay (BooBoo Stewart), and Carlos (Cameron Boyce). Asking “How would Disney villains fair in raising the next generation of evil if they ever reproduced?” is kind of a fascinating idea to think about; they technically answered the inverse in Lion King II, so why not give the villains a stab at it? This movie sees their offspring being given a chance to prove they can be good by being enrolled in Auradon Prep, a prestigious high school attended by the children of Disney’s less wicked characters like Snow White and Belle. But while there, the parents – more specifically, Maleficent – have a mission for them: grab the magic wand of the Fairy Godmother that would grant the villains their powers back and free the banished once and for all. But given that this is a movie airing on the Disney Channel, romance is imminent. While Evie intentionally dumbs herself down to impress a boy, Jay becomes a jock, and Carlos learns that dogs aren’t as evil as his mother believes, Mal finds herself falling for Belle & Beast’s son Prince Ben (Mitchell Hope), causing her to question whether being as evil as her mother is truly what she wants.

A large chunk of this movie features the villain kids scheming to steal the wand while also adjusting to life outside the island, planting the seeds of good firmly into their systems. And given that this is a Disney Channel movie that takes place in high school, clichés are pretty much par for the course. Rather than doing something risky like having Maleficent commit a disturbingly heinous action or Mal finding a new group of friends that she connects a lot with – which she almost did with Jane (Brenna D’Amico) – the plot device that further persuades her to turn good is the time-tested romance angle. This movie also includes the male characters having to participate in a sports game, which isn’t bad but is once again a high school movie staple. Skipping to the moral, however, if this movie is about anything, it’s about discovering who you truly are and not letting preconceived notions define you, whether it’s living up to your parents’ expectations or trying to dodge the world’s opinion of you. It’s definitely a positive that a modern Disney Channel movie contains such a message. It’s teen fluff, but it’s teen fluff that’s inspired at the very least.

Characters & PerformancesThe Characters

Given that this is a Disney Channel Original Movie, it could be expected that the acting isn’t aiming for Academy Awards. The target audience is tweens who want to see pretty faces engage in some cheesy-yet-watchable activity. Does that mean the acting in this movie is all bad? Not really. This is the second Disney Channel Original Movie for Dove Cameron, previously playing the lead in the sports drama Cloud 9 and most famous at this point for playing both titular characters on Liv & Maddie. With her consistently entertaining performances on that show, she showed that she had what it took to be a lead on children’s programming. In this movie, she continued that streak, effortlessly channeling both Mal’s inherited evil side and her seemingly reluctant transition into the realm of good. She brings enough charisma to her performance to be able to walk the tightrope between the two sides of the character. I imagine the casting for the role of Jay was specifically to find a Taylor Lautner type, so it was fitting that another Twilight werewolf, BooBoo Stewart, got the role. One thing is for sure: his acting her beats his acting (and the acting in general) in the Twilight franchise by miles, turning in a serviceable performance as a athletic jock that kind of seems like a parody of “charming” prince-types at times. The same can be said for Jessie star Cameron Boyce, who is playing almost exactly the same character he plays on Jessie. For Sofia Carson, this was her breakthrough role and she proved to be remarkably entertaining, even though she came across as more of a glamorous, superficial princess than actually truly evil. That was probably the point though as it’s supposed to lead to her satisfactory transition into good.

Kristen Chenoweth as Maleficent was the most perfect casting, not just for her chemistry with her next-generation counterpart – which was apparently so good that Hairspray Live decided to try to capture the magic again in 2016 – but also because of her prior experience in the over-the-top, musical wonderland of Broadway. She played Glinda in Wicked, after all. Brenna D’Amico‘s Jane is adorably naive and even Sarah Jefferey, who is being left out of the sequel, gave a decent performance as Audrey, the daughter of Aurora and Phillip. I actually found her more interesting than her bland mom in the original movie, actually. The rest of the performances aren’t as memorable. Mal’s love interest is no Zac Efron, managing to make even Ross Lynch in the Teen Beach franchise seem like the world’s most charismatic heartthrob in comparison. The other villains (including “Boss Lady” Wendy Raquel Robinson as Cruella De Vil) are amusing when on-screen, but are ultimately a missed opportunity as they’re barely in it and are more played for laughs the whole time if anything. All that’s left are extras that don’t leave much of an impression. The main cast does well, but after High School Musical and Camp Rock set the standard for DCOMs like this to have a whole cast of unforgettable supporting characters like Martha Cox and Peggy Dupree , this movie didn’t live up to it as much in my eyes.

The MusicThe Music

I don’t know if this is an unpopular opinion or not, but I feel like aside from the minor cast, the music is probably the weakest part of this franchise to date. Unless you’re someone who grew up when certain videos played on the network and became fond of them, Disney Channel music generally gets a bad reputation for being pandering fluff with only the really big stars being able to sustain a viable career with it. While the music in Descendants isn’t Disney Channel music at its most pandering – they make sure to dodge terrible rapping, meaning they must’ve learned from the mistakes of Tiffany Thornton and Mitchel Musso – it’s certainly not the best either. Leaving out the songs from the Wicked World shorts, we still have plenty of other songs that actually do get played here. Mostly about being evil. For example, “Rotten To The Core”, a song which sounds like a chaotic slab of dubstep in the movie version and sounds too glitzy and jazzy to be an intimidating villain song when Sofia Carson sings it solo. The movie version may have netted the four main actors a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, but personally, it’s actually kind of frustrating to listen to. It sounds like a whole lot of noise with super generic lyrics about how evil the kids supposedly are. It is better than the new Pitch Perfect-like version of “Be Our Guest” they included, which I could imagine adults who grew up with the classic Beauty & The Beast throwing a chair at the TV for after watching. The purpose was obviously to make “Be Our Guest” sound modern, but it’s the single most cringe-worthy moment of the film.

Some songs, however, aren’t so bad. I praised Dove Cameron‘s performance on the #99-peaking “If Only” last year and I stand by it. Still probably my favorite song in this movie, in that it shows Mal at her most vulnerable, deciding what’s the path she truly wants to take. She and Kristen Chenoweth probably have the most traditionally Disney-like song in the movie with “Evil Like Me”. The way the scene is framed and the whimsical sound of the music both make it seem like it could probably be considered an overall decent villain song in a theatrically released movie, or at least featured in a Broadway production. I think that’s what they were aiming for given Tony Award winner Chenoweth’s aforementioned Broadway experience. Mitchell Hope performing “Did I Mention” might give “Shake It Off” vibes with the horns, but it’s actually really catchy and is enjoyable in that regard, if you put aside how silly it is that he based a hook around spelling “ridiculous”. It’s like The Black Eyes Peas wrote it with production from Chip Skylark‘s people. Even the end song “Set It Off” is fine for what it is; not gonna beat “We’re All in this Together” or “We Rock” for great DCOM posse cut end songs – it is better than the Teen Beach 2 end song, though – but it could get a party started. Still, the music is undeniably typical DCOM and might make the audiences outside the target audience frustrated like those who didn’t “get” High School Musical were. The fanbase must not have minded to much though as the soundtrack debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. And check out the Wicked World songs at your own risk because they will get stuck in your head, be it the maddenly catchy “Good Is The New Bad” or even that admittedly-subpar G-rated “Genie in a Bottle” cover.

One review on The Hollywood Reporter said that Descendants is High School Musical meets Once Upon a Time”. She hit the nail on the head; that’s the best way to describe this. Sure, Once Upon A Time did a musical episode before, but this would be that if the target demographic was a bit younger. This franchise wears its marketability on it’s sleeve, actually; do the Wicked World shorts not look like a more-fluidly done callback to the Saturday morning Bratz cartoon? You can go to Wal-Mart and count on seeing Mal or Evie’s face somewhere in products in a few different kind of aisles. Disney Villains is a franchise in it’s own right, so why not extend it with by giving the new generation their own version of that cash cow? And it’s worked given that the sequel is set to premiere this week off the back of the 6.6 million viewers on the premiere night of the original, and it looks like it’s set to be bigger and more adventurous than the first. When Dove Cameron says the sequel might blow the first one out of the water, that doesn’t just seem like a corny aquatic pun for the sake of the second film’s sea setting. Based on what we’ve already seen, I totally believe her.

Overall, the first movie is harmless fun. It’s not the most sophisticated, but no one is expecting to get Citizen Kane or even The Great Lebowski from DCOMs. It takes an outside-the-box idea with potential and turns it not only into a geniusly marketable franchise, but also a glitzy hour-and-a-half-plus reminder of how important friendship and identity is. I don’t know if this will bring back old-school Disney fans; that’s probably the job of the Raven’s Home premiere after Descendants 2 debuts.  Most older viewers will probably find this to be hit-or-miss. It’s also not gonna be revered as a groundbreaking piece of work, but it is definitely one of the better and more interesting DCOMs of the past decade, with a universe hopefully to be expanded upon in the best way in the sequel. This probably would have been better if made a theatrically released film with a bigger budget, better special effects, a bigger standout track in the vein of “How Far I’ll Go” or “Let It Go”, and bigger risks done with the story, but for a TV movie, I see no harm in giving evil a chance here.

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