Director-choreographer Kenny Ortega takes THR through the production of Disney Channel's most ambitious movie yet.
Mal, Evie, Jay and Carlos are back, and this time they are facing a new foe — at least one who's new to viewers.
Disney Channel's Descendants 2 finds the gang of villains-turned-good guys — all the offspring of classic Disney villains — trying to fit in at Auradon Prep. When Maleficent's daughter, Mal (Dove Cameron), struggling with the pressure to be royally perfect, returns to the Isle of the Lost, she reunites with an old nemesis, Uma (China Anne McClain), daughter of Ursula, who is resentful she wasn't selected to go to Auradon Prep with the other kids. Their old rivalry is renewed, and Mal and her pals must stop Uma before she releases all the villains imprisoned on the isle.
The movie, which also stars Cameron Boyce, Sofia Carson and Booboo Stewart, will premiere at 8 p.m. ET on Friday across six networks within the Disney|ABC Television Group: Disney Channel, ABC, Disney XD, Freeform, Lifetime and Lifetime Movies.
Ahead of the debut, Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), who executive produced, directed and co-choreographed the first movie and its sequel, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about what went into making the film, which is being dubbed Disney Channel's most ambitious original movie yet.
The musical number "What's My Name" introduces some new villain kids, including Uma, the daughter of sea witch Ursula (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) from The Little Mermaid. China Anne McClain (pictured above, center), who plays Uma, watched Little Mermaid more than 20 times to get inspiration.
Three other prominent new characters also are introduced in the sequel movie: Gil (Dylan Playfair, pictured at left), the son of Beauty and the Beast's Gaston; Harry (Thomas Doherty, pictured at right), the son of Peter Pan nemesis Captain Hook; and Dizzy (Anna Cathcart, pictured below with Ortega), the daughter of Drizella, one of the evil stepsisters from Cinderella.
Asked how they decided upon these new villains, Ortega said he and writers Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon (The Starter Wife, Runaway Bride) got together with Disney Channel executives and realized the daughter of Ursula "was the clear first choice."
Harry, meanwhile, serves as the "bad boy who backs her up," Gil offers "comedic fun," and Dizzy — who is portrayed as a sweet girl who not exactly like her evil mother — has "more charm and pathos."
To cast the roles, Ortega and his team conducted a worldwide search. They found Doherty in Scotland and Playfair in Vancouver. McClain, meanwhile, was competing with more than 100 other young actresses for her role. She was already part of the Disney Channel family, having starred in the series A.N.T. Farm and the original movie How to Build a Better Boy. "She aced her audition," Ortega said of McClain. "It's always fun when you're casting to open it up and really go wide and take our time. We had the good fortune of not having to rush the process."
As for Goldberg, who has a cameo as the voice of Ursula, Ortega said it was a dream come true to work with The View co-host and EGOT winner.
"I've been a huge fan forever, and I missed out on a chance to work with her earlier in my career ... which devastated me," he said. For the voice of Ursula, "I said, 'Let's go to Whoopi,' and people were like, 'You're nuts.' But she's a Disney fan, and she said yes. She came in and gave me 200 different line readings. It was a small part for her but a big (moment) for me."
When auditioning dancers for Descendants 2, Ortega and his co-choreographer, Tony Testa, aimed to find dancers who would be good mentors for the actors and all together well-rounded individuals. A total of 52 dancers were cast in the movie and put through weeks of dance rehearsals in Los Angeles and in Canada leading up to production of the movie.
The movie marks Ortega's (pictured at left, pointing) sixth with Disney Channel. In addition to the Descendants movies, he directed the first three High School Musical movies and The Cheetah Girls 2. This is also the sixth movie he has worked on with production designer Mark Hofeling (pictured at right, also pointing) and composer David Lawrence. Hofeling and Lawrence also both worked on other Disney Channel movies, including Teen Beach Movie and its sequel.
The concept art and renderings seen in this photo show key scenes from the movie, including the yacht on which the final dance sequence takes place and the pirate wharf and ship upon which a key scene featuring both Mal's and Uma's gangs is set.
"This is a real coming-together of minds and enthusiasm from folks who love Disney and these characters and the world we're playing in," Ortega said. "Mark Hofeling is just a genius in imagining these worlds."
The final dance sequence, "You and Me," takes place on an entirely flooded yacht deck. As the cast members dance, water splashes with their every move. The sequence required two huge water cannons to wet the deck.
"This is something we really wanted to do, but there were concerns about everything from safety to continuity," Ortega said. "How do you do an entire number in water and keep the continuity? My answer to that was, 'Well, you can't. Not really.' You just hope the audience suspends disbelief to a certain degree, and so far nobody has come up to me and punched me in the arm and said, 'What were you thinking?'"
Ortega said the young castmembers were excited about the sequence leading up to filming. "They couldn't wait, especially the younger ones, like Cameron (Boyce, who plays Carlos, son of Cruella De Vil) and Brenna (D'Amico, who plays Jane, the daughter of Fairy Godmother). They were having a field day. The wetter they got, the happier they were."
The prep to shoot this sequence involved a great deal of movement work along with testing on the costumes, makeup and hair.
The sequence takes place after a climactic showdown that Ortega said he was intended to give fans something even bigger than what they saw in the first movie.
"One hundred million people saw the first movie in every continent in the world, so we knew we had some work to do," he said. "We had to work hard and raise the bar so what what we were putting out there would live up to their expectations and beyond. We really invested more time and money into visual effects, sound effects, music, choreography, locations. We really went after this one. We didn't have a whole heck of a lot more time and money, but we had more experience and we were all bonded. What we've done is come up with something bigger, and perhaps it's the biggest Disney Channel movie ever produced out of over 100 movies."
Descendants 2 costume designer Kara Saun wanted to ensure that each costume design fit each character's individual narrative and storyline. A total of 1,500 costumes were custom-created for the movie. One of the dresses created for Mal required more than 100 of yards of fabric to create, Ortega said, calling Saun "so creative."
A castle in Victoria, Canada, that contains more than 40 rooms served as the backdrop for the movie's opening number, "Ways to Be Wicked." Descendants 2 also revisits the home of the villains, Isle of the Lost, where viewers get a look at new locations including Ursula's Fish and Chip Shop (picture below), the villain kids' bridge hideout, Lady Tremaine's Curl Up & Dye (also pictured below) and a pirate wharf and ship.
One location included using a 100-year-old copper mine to represent a location on the Isle of the Lost and another location involved an old sugar factory.
"Everything is a practical location or on soundstages," Ortega said, adding that Mother Nature nearly derailed one shoot. "We were shooting this musical number, 'Chillin' Like a Villain,' a wonderful sequence that happens in the middle of the movie. We actually shot that during a typhoon in Vancouver on location. We couldn't stop because it was the last day we could work in that location. Half of the set blew away, and we were nearly flooded out. But the kids didn't mind being drenched. We shot the entire musical number during a typhoon."
Descendants 2 ramps up the action from the original movie, evidenced in two elaborate sword-fighting sequences in two key scenes. The first, pictured above, introduces a new sport at Auradon Prep, while a climactic and action-driven number, "It's Going Down," seen below, features a battle between the villain kids (Mal, daughter of Maleficent; Carlos, son of Cruella de Vil; Evie, daughter of the Evil Queen and Jay, the son of Jafar) and Uma, daughter of Ursula, and her pirate gang.
To prepare for the sequences, each cast member had about 20 hours of sword training, working with two highly skilled sword trainers.
Ortega said he believes the "pumped-up action" also will draw in more boys for the sequel. "We have more action and fun, plus the sword play, and I'm hoping this time around the guys really feel represented — and the females. This one is a more mature story, and I believe this is family entertainment and not just children's entertainment."
Asked if there might be a third movie, Ortega is hopeful.
"I'm now a social media guy thanks to Disney, and so I get ... lots of ideas for movie 3 (from fans) who haven't even seen 2 yet," he said. "The cast did an exceptional job, the look of the movie is terrific, and I'm betting on our fans wanting another. And you can bet on me saying yes if (Disney) wants it. We have the time of our lives."
Hear more from Ortega and others on the making of the movie below.