Disney’s Descendants plays like an extended 2-hour pop music meditation, updating the classic Disney Princess Magic Kingdom with Deadmau5 dubstep and Sia Fuller hyperpop, that is ultimately utterly likable.
Descendants is a made-for-TV feature length film, debuting on July 31, 2015 to an audience of 6.6 million, despite underground murmurings and protestations leading up to the pop spectacle. Descendants tells the story of the offspring of four of the main Disney Villains – the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy), Cruella De Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Jafar (Maz Jobrani), and Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth). The kids – Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Boyce), Jay (Booboo Stewart), and Mal (Dove Cameron) – have grown up in the Isle Of The Lost, cut off from magic.
Meanwhile, across the river, the Disney protagonists have been enjoying their happily-ever-after. Belle and Beast have united the kingdoms under one banner – Auradon. Descendants drops us in on the eve of Prince Ben’s coronation as King Of Auradon. Ben’s first proclamation as future king is to invite the children of their sworn enemies to attend Auradon’s finest prep school, convinced that the sins of the parents need not be the sins of the children.
The Disney Villains, led by Maleficent (played by a glorious Kristin Chenoweth) sense an opportunity to have their revenge, and dispatch the teenagers to steal the Fairy Godmother’s – the charming “Bippity Boppety Boo-ing” Melanie Paxson – wand. With the wand, Maleficent would have the ability to break the spell imprisoning them on The Island Of The Lost, resuming their dreams of conquest.
The four teenagers find themselves struggling to remain bad while everyone is being nice to them. Mal, played by the resplendent Dove Cameron, is the most focused on their mission, determined to be as wicked as can be, while still feeling compelled to do the right thing. She is truly torn but, ultimately, wants her mother’s love and approval. This split is played out in one of Descendants’ rare moments of musical theater – the show-stopping “Evil Like Me” written by Tony nominee Andrew Lippa, performed by Dove Cameron and Kristin Chenoweth with Maleficent reminding Mal how good it feels to be bad.
Mal senses an opportunity to seize the wand during Prince Ben’s coronation, and sets about bewitching him with a love spell. This sets off a fairy tale romance that even a princess would envy. Mal begins to have her doubts about her wicked schemes.
It also sets into motion one of the movie’s most stirring musical moments, “If Only”, played by Cameron against a sylvan mermaid grotto like the most gloriously fantastical Britney Spears video ever. A montage of the film’s most memorable romantic moments play over the song, some having happened mere minutes before. These flashback montages, of which there are several during Descendant’s two hours, produce an interesting, disorienting back-and-forth. On one hand, you’ve just seen these scenes minutes ago. Our attention spans aren’t that short. The music video segments, however, cherrypick the most striking and iconic moments of the film, causing a re-appreciation of what you’ve just watched. It’s like, “Oh, that was beautiful,” or “That is romantic.” You realize how flawless the initial presentation is. This is selfie film-making, to be sure, but not as a criticism. Instead, it shows the youthful (it never really goes away) longing to be larger-than-life, to be experiencing these grandeur moments with new friends and new love. It is the look of discovering the world, and let none of us forget it.
Dove Cameron really carries this movie along. Her mixture of steely stoicism and hidden warmth and depth create a tension-and-release that extends to the rest of the cast, pulling you into the narrative. Plus, I’m not gonna lie – she’s got purple hair and a great fashion sense! The girl wears a layered, colored leather jacket for most of the film, along with leather gloves and spiked bracelets.
The fact that Descendants follows villains is a lot of what makes it work. It delights in being twisted, like the twitching viral movie opener “Rotten To The Core”, which would make Skrillex proud. This is not your standard cotton candy pink Disney Princess affair; although it is that, as well. It shows that you don’t have to be a goody-good to be good, nor do you ever have to stop looking good or having poise and style.
But these kids, ultimately, don’t want to be like their parents. Auradon took them in and gave them the chance to succeed by their own merits. They found themselves cared about, part of a community. At the end of the day, it feels good to do good and being happy is what counts.
But Long Live Evil, nonetheless.
As someone who is currently in their 30s, I missed out on the Golden Age of Disney technopop divas, except from a distance, I find it fascinating to step in and witness the spectacle. I appreciate a well-put-together display, and Disney’s performers never miss a beat. The dancing is freakishly good, and the fact that the actors perform their own music is a major plus. Dove Cameron has real pop star potential, and Kristin Chenoweth is total pro – right on key with a powerful set of pipes that would make Chitah Rivera proud.
For those of you with kids age 8 – 14, odds are very good that you will be seeing/hearing this one more than once, so you must decide for yourselves, early on, if you’re for or against.
Me, I’m for it. I love seeing new life seeing spun into the Fairy Tales, even if it is an extension of the Once Upon A Time-trope, as has already been noted by numerous other critics. Disney is showing imagination, breathing life into the old stories and bringing them to new viewers, as they’ve done for the last 92 years.