I don’t own a TV and it’s not something I go around bragging about as if I’m the coolest person you know. I could probably fit a TV somewhere in my apartment if I got rid of a bookcase (unlikely) or my desk, but until then, there’s simply not any space. As a result, I don’t have cable and all TV I consume is watched on my laptop.
This means I missed the most recent Disney Channel Original Movie phenomenon, “Descendants,” until I was in the checkout line at the grocery store. No, not one of the food co-ops I buy groceries from, an honest-to-God supermarket. (I have a craving for Bigelow Lemon Lift tea rooted in memories of sitting in the dining halls of MSU with food and a book.) Among the magazines was a tie-in magazine for “Descendants” with an image of the four main characters on the front. Confused and intrigued, I picked it up and flipped through before my purchase was ready. I looked it up when I got home and discovered it was a Disney Channel Original Movie and my interest has been piqued ever since, only growing since I saw a copy of the DVD at Target and noticed Maleficent on the back and learned from the blurb there’s a lot of retconning that goes on in this movie.
The movie is set shortly after the marriage of Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Beast (Dan Payne) in the United States of Auradon, a land created from the unification of all the kingdoms in Disney films. Beast is elected king of Auradon and he banishes all of the villains and their henchmen to the Isle of the Lost. Flash forward 16 years and Beast and Belle’s son, Ben (Mitchell Hope), is preparing for his coronation as king because apparently this is an elected monarchy where the descendant of the king becomes the next king, sans an election. Ben decides his first act as king will to invite four children from the Isle of the Lost to attend school in Auradon and he selects Mal (Dove Cameron), Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Boyce) and Jay (Booboo Stewart), who are the children of Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth), the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy? Kathy Najimy.), Cruella de Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson), and Jafar (Maz Jobrani? Maz Jobrani.), respectfully.
The children are tasked by Maleficent with getting the wand of the Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson), which will allow the villains to break free and get their revenge. While at Auradon, the four, erm, descendants work on trying to make the plan work while connecting with the children of the good guys and struggling with if they’re really evil as a result of who their parents are.
Oh, and it’s a musical.
The biggest issue with the movie is the logic right at the start. Beast is elected king of Auradon, not president. And on top of that, his son automatically becomes king? There’s no chance Prince Charming could be king? Or Li Shang? If we’re going to be honest, Shang and Mulan would be the perfect leaders. They have military experience and proven leadership. But then there’s the Isle of the Lost itself, where we have reason to believe the villains have found other villains to procreate with, even though the only villains we meet are the four mentioned earlier. Where’s Governor Ratcliffe, human Ursula, Gaston and Lady Tremaine? Did Frollo get banished to the Isle of the Lost or did he get to help out with state-sponsored discrimination against a group of people? Also, how are the Evil Queen and Maleficent alive? Why is Jafar running a junk shop and why is he the only person who has a new thing since being banished to the island? The movie just tells us these things are the case at the beginning of the film, assuming we’ll just accept the reality presented, but no, I’m sorry, I was raised on Disney movies and I know how these villains go.
The other big issue with the film, although it could be argued it makes the movie stronger, is how every child of a “good guy” is significantly less interesting than the main quartet, right down to the costumes, designed by Kara Saun. But on the other hand, the film presents us with four characters you can root for, particularly Mal as she struggles between pleasing her mother and doing what she really wants. Sometimes the movie tells us things in the most rushed way, like in order to prove to us Evie is smart she has her magic mirror stolen and she manages to still get a good grade. But the four of them are believable as being good people, with great moments like a recurring gag about Jay and Carlos loving chocolate.
The film also does something unthinkable even in 2015 and actually casts actors who are good for the roles, regardless of their race. This means having Robinson, who is black, play a character usually depicted as white and having a son who appears white. Similarly, Sleeping Beauty’s mother is also played by an black actress and her granddaughter also appears to be white. You can suspend all disbelief here because the actors are perfect in those roles, particularly Robinson, and the characters they play are all that matters, not the race of the actors, which is how it should be. Even if some of the characters come off as bland because of how they’re written–looking at you Ben–the casting for this film is pitch perfect, particularly the four leads and their parents.
I have unfortunately glossed over the fact the film is a musical, which is actually the only other demerit. The opening number, “Rotten to the Core,” is a catchy EDM-influenced number–Carson recorded a fantastic version of the song I recommend checking out–but at no point during the song did I truly believe the actors were singing the song. The rest of the original numbers are bland, but the worst I can say is they feel like a time suck and without the songs I feel like the movie would not be nearly two hours long. If you do watch the movie, I recommend skipping the bizarre pseudo-hip-hop cover of “Be Our Guest” the students of Auradon perform because it is flat out awful and feels like an arbitrary number dropped in the film to remind us all of how the movie follows the children of our favorite Disney characters.
The film does have the trappings we now cynically expect from a Disney Channel Original Movie, but thanks to some fantastic casting and protagonists I can actually care about it manages to be a fun movie to watch, even if you just put it on in the background. It’s a shame they really didn’t think through the logic of how Auradon works.