“Descendants 2” (2017)

descendants_two_ver3 Everything is awful in this world, so it seemed like a good idea to indulge in what is my pop culture guilty pleasure.

“Descendants,” which premiered on Disney Channel in 2015, ended up being something I liked far more than I expected. It had flaws, although most of those flaws are solved by reading Melissa de la Cruz’s “Descendants” novels. When the second movie was announced, I was mildly excited and intrigued, which is a feeling that has only grown since reading De la Cruz’s novels. Besides, it can’t be the worst thing I’ve seen this year.

The movie picks up a few months after the first one as Mal (Dove Cameron) is trying to get used to her role as the girlfriend of King Ben (Mitchell Hope). While she starts to crack from the stress, Evie (Sofia Carson) is busy designing dresses, Jay (Booboo Stewart) remains his athletic self, and Carlos (Cameron Boyce) is struggling to ask Jane (Brenna D’Amico) out to the cotillion. Ben eventually discovers Mal has been relying on magic to cope with the pressures of being his girlfriend (and queen to be), and the two have a falling out. Mal returns to the Isle of the Lost and confronts her old foe Uma (China Anne McClain), the seapunk pirate daughter of Ursula. Uma, bitter about not being selected to go to Auradon, teams up with Harry Hook (Thomas Doherty), to try to bring Mal down while Ben, Evie, Jay, and Carlos try to save Mal.

There is a glaring problem with most movie musical spectaculars on Disney Channel and it’s the over-produced songs. This goes back to at least “Camp Rock,” where there’s a song where Joe Jonas is sitting on a tree and there are a lot of background vocals, but he’s the only person in the frame and Demi Lovato is just standing there, listening. The running joke in my family is the leaves and twigs have incredible singing voices because there the audio has this incredible melody, but the only person singing is Joe Jonas.

This problem rears its ugly head during what, otherwise, is the best number of “Descendants 2,” “What’s My Name.” If you listen to “What’s My Name” on the soundtrack, it’s a great hip-hop number the cynical would argue is designed to make people excited for the film. But in the movie, all of the engineering of the number ends up detracting because the audio levels are so horribly uneven, causing some of Uma’s lyrics to become muddled and all of Harry’s verse to be lost.

Many songs for Disney Channel movies seem designed to be big radio hits, no doubt on Radio Disney. I’m sure there are no Disney executives losing sleep about how the production of the songs on Disney Channel movies will affect them, but it is incredibly distracting and I wish, as odd as this sounds, there was an element of realism to the songs.

Aside for three glaring problems, “Descendants 2” manages to be superior in almost every way to its predecessor. It possibly benefits from having the world of the film established already, but there’s a feeling by cutting out the Disney characters people love and focusing on their children, the movie manages to be enjoyable. The movie is even a full minute shorter than its predecessor and feels tighter in terms of story, failing to drag at any moment. Even the musical number that feels superfluous, which comes right at the end of the movie, is a delight to watch.

More importantly, you can tell almost every actor has grown in the time between the first and second films. No actor has improved more than Carson, whose jazzy version of “Rotten to the Core” remains one of my favorite things about this series. In the first movie, Evie was an enjoyable character, but Carson largely felt overshadowed by Cameron, whom I thought was bound to be a star if she kept improving after the first film. In every scene she’s in, Carson seems thoroughly engaged with what is happening around Evie and steals nearly every scene she’s in just by her presence. One only hopes she gets non-Disney Channel acting work because she proves in this movie she has the chops (and before anyone says, “Disney Channel stars can’t act,” I suggest you turn your attention to Cole Sprouse, who is giving a fantastic performance as Jughead Jones on The CW’s “Riverdale.”)

The villains in this movie also seem to be better cast. As much as I love Kristin Chenoweth, I don’t think she’s a great Maleficent. With that movie, it felt more like she was cast for her singing chops than if she was right for the role. Here, the addition of McClain and Doherty makes the film instantly better. Even if there weren’t a number of improvements, their performances are so delightful you could still enjoy the movie. McClain, who has a history as an actress and musician before this film, is, like Carson, so throughly engaged in every scene she appears in, you can’t stop watching her. While villains, as I have often pointed out on this blog, do not need to be written with nuance, McClain’s body language and line delivery brings the character the depth it might not have gotten with other actors. Doherty gives a performance so deliriously over-the-top, the script acknowledges it, and it makes the film better as a result. No one wants to see a muted version of the son of Captain Hook. The character of his father is already a mustache-twirling villain in the animated film–as well as Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the underrated “Hook”–so it makes sense the character here would be the same.

The songs in this film, largely written by people not involved with the first movie, are catchier and seem to propel the plot along better. There even fail to be any hip-hop covers of songs from the Disney renaissance done horribly wrong. The choreography, done by Disney favorite and director Kenny Ortega with Tony Testa, is more impressive and, in many numbers, feels more natural. As always, the costumes are incredible, particularly with three very important dresses during the cotillion. You even get the sense the set decorators had more fun with this movie with clever signs on the Isle of the Lost–although “Chum” listed as a size in Ursula’s Fish and Chips made me think of Chip Zdarsky’s comics.

The film stumbles with the performance given by Cameron, who unfortunately had the most to shoulder in terms of plot. Her lip syncing is not particularly good and she’s largely surrounded by actors who are giving better performances than her. There was one moment when I paused the movie when Evie and Mal are seated next to each other and I came back to notice how Cameron was just there, while Carson is actively reacting to what the other characters are saying. What helps Cameron is she was already really good in the first film–I was predicting her to be a star after the movie–so the movie doesn’t suffer too much by having a pretty decent actress in the lead role. I just hope before the third film–especially since Uma gives a “You’re not gonna believe this” moment–she grows more as an actress, even though she has been working hard on her music career.

The other problem is Hope is just very bland as an actor. I had initially thought it was the result of how the villains were more compelling in the first film, but Ben is a very well-drawn character in the novels. Hope, who has a larger role in this film, barely registers in this movie in terms of a presence, except when he’s singing in “Chillin’ Like a Villain.” Every line delivery is so flat and uninteresting, it destroys every single important moment he has. What’s worse is the audience really needs to care about about him and Mal, and I care a lot more about Evie and Doug and Carlos and Jane than I do about them because of how utterly uninteresting Cameron and Hope are as leads.

While this franchise is not the place to look for originality, it bothers me to no end Uma wants the Fairy Godmother’s wand so she can go to Auradon, angry over not being invited by Ben. I’d like to think they could have gone after some other noted magical object in Auradon instead of going after the one from the first film. It causes the movie to have the problem of nearly following the same plot as the first one.

If you’re not a stickler about your Disney movies and want something, anything, to provide some mindless diversion from the current world, <i>Descendants 2</i> while not high art, is enjoyable. Thankfully this movie doesn’t flounder around, considering Disney Channel only released this movie this year. One hopes the series continues to improve if they make another film and Sofia Carson gets some work outside of Disney Channel.

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