WICKED wasn’t the first story to look at a beloved classic tale and retell it from the villain’s point of view, but it’s certainly had a profound impact on the way we look at modern fairy tales. Thanks to Elphaba, villains everywhere now have the opportunity to have the story told from their point of view. The Evil Queen can be sympathetic and relatable, an evil witch can be capable of motherly love, Maleficent can be a mentor to young Aurora despite having her heart and dreams crushed by a selfish king, the Ice Queen can be a tragic heroine whose isolation was an attempt to keep her loved ones safe from her own power, and even Captain Hook can be a charmer who was once friends with Peter Pan. Yes, it seems turning classic villains into tragic heroes is a trend that is still taking Hollywood by storm, but the simple role reversal of turning said villain into the protagonist is quickly becoming old hat, so how are storytellers looking to try something different with this idea? In steps the Disney Channel Original Movie DESCENDANTS, a story about the children of the Disney Rogues Gallery and their attempt to make their parents proud by hatching a scheme against the children of Disney movie heroes and heroines. Is this made for TV musical a fresh take on villainous protagonists, or is this movie rotten to the core?
DESCENDANTS is the story of Mal, Jay, Carlos, and Evie, the children of Maleficent, Jafar, Cruella de Vil, and the Evil Queen respectively, being invited out of exile from the Isle of the Lost to attend a prestigious school in Auradon. Their parents see this as an opportunity to free themselves from exile and make a villainous comeback, but can only do so if their children seize the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand and use it t break the magical barrier that keeps them trapped on the island. Mal, Jay, Carlos, and Evie are excited at this opportunity at big time villainy, but slowly start to see that maybe good isn’t as bad it’s cracked up to be. Can the four overcome the goody-two-shoe preppy nature of their school in time to make their parents proud?
Fans of the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL series will quickly recognize that the film is directed by Kenny Ortega, director of all three HIGH SCHOOL MUSICALS as well as cult-favorite HOCUS POCUS. The cast is downright pitch perfect for what the movie is trying to accomplish, with Kristin Chenoweth as Maleficent, Kathy Najimy as the Evil Queen, Wendy Raquel Robinson as Cruella De Vil, Maz Jobrani as Jafar, Keegan Connor Tracy as Belle, and Melaine Paxon as the Fairy Godmother. All of the younger parts are also played well, but it’s hard for the less experienced actors to stand out when they are in scenes with seasoned comedic veterans. Chenoweth in particular completely steals the show, as every scene she’s in is dripping with delightful cheese, and it’s just a treat to see her take on “The Mistress of All Evil”. From a musical standpoint, the costumes are outstanding (particularly for Mal’s many outfit changes), the dance scenes are all well choreographed, the tone and high energy of the performances are all a lot of fun, and the film itself seems to have an infectious vibe to it, meaning if you give it enough time, you can’t help but get sucked in and watch with a smile on your face. That being said, the music itself leaves something to be desired. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but I can’t say that I’m a big fan of dubstep, so having it as a prominent component of many of the songs makes it difficult for me to get into the groove of the film. There is also a great deal of auto tuning used for many of the songs as well, making the lip-syncing look inauthentic for a number of performances.
Seeing this portrayal of classic Disney villains at an all time low is fairly intriguing. Maleficent is still powerful, but exile has reduced her to trying mold her daughter into a reflection of her younger self. The Evil Queen (who has clearly had work done) teaches her daughter that looks are all that matters, and that landing a prince is important so that she can live in a castle once more. Jafar, robbed of his magic, is reduced to being a petty thief, and though the irony of now being a street rat is not lost on him, teaches his son that stealing is the only way to get what you want in this world. Cruella, shamed by her defeat at the paws of 101 puppies, insists on instilling her son with an innate fear of dogs to make her feel better about her own shortcomings, to the point where she even attempts to keep him from leaving the island at all, even after Maleficent insists that he go as well. On the one hand, seeing the Disney villains as has-beens while the Disney heroes are simultaneously portrayed as snobby, self-absorbed country-club members is pretty funny, and lends itself to a lot of funny (albeit cheesy) one-liners and comedic scenarios. On the other hand, this idea feels like wasted potential. When I think of all the Disney villains being confined to one place, I don’t imagine a distinguished lady like Maleficent living vicariously through her daughter, or the dignified Jafar stealing everything he can lay his hands on. I imagine more of a Regina-Mr. Gold dynamic from ONCE UPON A TIME; heck, I find the scenario from the straight-to-DVD special MICKEY’S HOUSE OF VILLAINS to be more plausible than what we see in this movie. The Isle of the Lost was a brilliant idea that was squandered through goofy execution. Jafar and Maleficent could have been mob bosses playing a delicate game of chess with one another for control of the island (or rather to find a way off the island), Cruella could have been the head of the black market or a ruthless corporate fashion mogul, and the Evil Queen could have run for office.
With all the possibilities of where these characters could have been 20 years after their enemies got their happily ever after, there’s just something very off-putting about seeing these characters who were originally portrayed as regal and charismatic treated with such disrespect without the film being a full tongue-and-cheek satire. There are points were the movie feels like that’s what it’s trying to do and succeeds at it relatively well, but then pulls back and uses the power of friendship as a legitimate plot point. This premise could have been a thought-provoking piece on what drives a person to “villainy” by analyzing what constitutes as “good” and “bad”, on what results from psychologically-abusive parental relationships, or on how a person can be ostracized for trying to start a countercultural movement. Instead, we get middle-aged villains trying to figure out how to use Skype, and teens wrapped up in high school relationship drama. There are times where the film tries to channel MEAN GIRLS, but these scenes feel slightly out of place in, well, a high school musical, especially one making a multitude of Disney references.
If you are a die-hard Disney fan, you will either love this movie for its comedic take on what happens after happily-ever-after, or hate it for its deviation from the characters you know and love. If you’re not a fan of Disney or musicals, I can’t say that there’s much for you here. But if you can role with the jabs at beloved characters and aren’t too put off by the high school setting, you’ll actually find that the movie is a lot of fun. Did I want more from it? Of course I did, the music could be more theatrical, and the story could definitely be deeper, but at the end of the day I had fun watching this movie, and that is precisely what it’s trying to accomplish. I don’t know if it can truly stand as the cornerstone of a series (since it seems to have left the door open for a sequel), but this movie was meant to be a silly romp, and it succeeds at entertaining as such. If you’re a fan of Ortega’s previous work, you’ll probably be just as entertained by this film. If not but you still want a modern take on fairy tales, I’d suggest watching TANGLED, FROZEN, or INTO THE WOODS again instead.
What do you think of the movie? Did you enjoy the changes to beloved characters or do you wish this film had been left in exile? Be sure to let us know @TheMovieChickk!