You’d think with all of Disney’s recent acquisitions that they’d be more competent at creating a shared universe than this. The set up is reasonable enough (if breezily oblivious to some disturbing constitutional and human rights issues): after their marriage, Belle and the Beast (who, despite now being human apparently still doesn’t merit a real name) unite all the settings of Disney’s classics back catalogue into the United States of Auradon and are elected King and Queen. They imprison the all the villains (after presumably resurrecting some of them) and their associates on the Isle of the Lost, a decrepit shanty town surrounded by an impenetrable barrier that also prevents the use of magic.
Prince Ben, son of King Beast and Queen Belle is set to become king on his sixteenth birthday and his first proclamation is to invite four teenagers from the Isle of the Lost to attend Auradon Prep School (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Queen Mansion from “Arrow”). Beast is horrified but then he’s the guy who somehow leveraged an elected position into a hereditary monarchy and created a law which puts sixteen year olds in charge of the kingdom so, whatever. With this well intentioned olive branch, the villains sense their opportunity and Maleficent (Kristen Chenoweth) tasks her daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) with securing the Fairy Godmother’s wand and freeing the villains once and for all. For company, she also takes Cruella de Vil’s son Carlos (Cameron Boyce), Jafar’s son Jay (Booboo Stewart) and Evie (Sofia Carson), daughter of – I kid you not – the ‘Evil Queen’ from “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs”. Apparently the magical barrier not only inhibits magic but also the tiniest bit of imagination when naming your offspring. And if all this wasn’t enough, it’s also a musical. Yeah.
Musical is a bit of a stretch but there are a few songs peppered around with the opening number “Rotten To The Core” coming across like High School Dub Step Musical but the cast’s cover version of “Be Our Guest” is the worst musical atrocity since Jamie Kennedy murdered ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ in “Son Of The Mask”.
In theory I can see the appeal of a tween-friendly mash-up between “High School Musical” (full disclosure, HSM is one of my guilty pleasures) and “Once Upon A Time” but this high-camp pantomime is just a cynical and lazy cash grab (“Descendants” merchandise is already in the stores!). Whatever they were going for, it wasn’t within a mile – as the crow who be done seen ‘bout everything flies – of subtlety. The designer duds of the well-heeled Auradon Prep school pupils pale in comparison to the costumes of the villains’ descendants who look like they were given £50 and told to go crazy in the discontinued items sale racks of ‘New Look’ and ‘Top Shop’.
The villains themselves are portrayed in such a ridiculous manner that they seem more like a spoof of Disney and are unrecognisable from their animated or live action movies. Seriously, if you weren’t keen on what Disney did with the character in the movie “Maleficent”, you’ll go apoplectic over the treatment of the character here. Kirsten Chenoweth overacts so wildly here, crapping so thoroughly over the character that she must surely be living in fear of a not only Angelina Jolie but Eleanor Audley herself rising from the grave to give her a good slap. Director Kenny Ortega doesn’t seem to be able to rouse this crop of young starlets to the same levels of enthusiasm and energy as he managed in the wildly successful “High School Musical” franchise and it’s hard to see any of the cast using “Descendants” as their big break out role in the way Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron managed.
If you spend even a few moments thinking about the set-up for this world, it’s horrifyingly dark, although I’ll admit I’d be interested in seeing the story of Beast imposing unity across all the other fairy tale monarchies, seizing power for himself and then rounding up all the bad guys (raising them from the grave where necessary) and sentencing them to live on an isolated island in anarchy, a sentence imposed not only on them but their children. Sins of the father, much? But this is a Disney Original fluff piece so the world building takes distant second place to the songs, hair styling dramas and lessons about love and friendship.
It’s bright and colourful enough to pass the time for its intended audiences and I’m sure it will shift a good amount of dolls and dressing up clothes for Disney but it’s a shoddy, slapdash affair that, given its showcasing Disney’s Crown Jewels and the capable young cast, should have been much better.