How 'Descendants' Became Disney Channel's Own Cinderella Story

Courtesy of Disney Channel
Dove Cameron as Mal in 'Descendants 2'

The franchise — with the third film slated for a summer 2019 premiere — has struck demographic gold by putting a tween twist on iconic fairy tale characters: "It's crazy how much interest there is in this movie."

Who is Mal's father?

For a certain Disney-watching demographic — females age 7-12 — this is the most pressing question of the summer of 2018. Like "Who shot JR?" and The Sopranos series finale, it's become a pop culture obsession, at least for a generation too young to know anything about Dallas or the Mafia. On YouTube Kids and other tween-friendly social media sites, bloggers are floating theories — Mal's dad is King Stephen from Sleeping Beauty, or Merlin from The Sword in the Stone, or Hades from Hercules — but nobody knows for sure. And won't until the summer of 2019, when Descendants 3, the latest sequel in the Disney Channel's hugely successful fractured fairy tale franchise, is scheduled to debut.

"It's crazy how much interest there is in this movie," says choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega, who just finished shooting Descendants 3 in Vancouver (on a budget of about $15 million). "We had to have all this security on the set. We found a paparazzi in the woods in camouflaged fatigues shooting pictures with a telephoto lens. And there were drones overhead taking pictures! How do you deal with drones?"

Like Descendants 1 and 2 — the highest-rated cable TV movies of 2015 and 2017, respectively — this new installment deals with the teenage offspring of classic Disney characters who all go to the same magical prep school, get into scrapes with the sons and daughters of classic Disney villains and, at regular intervals, burst into song and dance numbers even more lavishly choreographed than those in Ortega's previous Disney project, the High School Musical movies of the 2000s. There's Ben, son of Belle and the Beast (24-year-old Australian actor Mitchell Hope); Evie, the not-so-naughty daughter of the Evil Queen (25-year-old Sofia Carson), Cruella De Vil's kid Carlos (19-year-old Cameron Boyce) and, at the center of this summer's guessing games, Mal (22-year-old Dove Cameron) whose mom is Maleficent and dad is … anybody's guess, but whose unmasking is widely assumed to be the driving plot point behind the third film (even Captain Hook's henchman Mr. Smee has been gossiped-about as a suspect).

Nobody at Disney will say who exactly came up with the idea of spinning the studio's classic IP into a next-generation TV movie series — "It came out of a brainstorming session of the products division," is about all Jennifer Rogers Doyle, senior vp brand development, will reveal — but it's clearly struck a chord with girls who've outgrown Frozen but still believe in the magic of wicked pop dance moves. The first Descendants pulled in more than 12 million viewers, while Descendants 2 nearly doubled those numbers to 22 million. More than 3.5 million Descendants dolls have been sold, as well as more than 5 million copies of Descendants books, while the soundtracks for both films each climbed to No.1 on Billboard's and iTunes' charts. Anyone who opened a door last Halloween knows how big a phenomenon it's become: Descendants costumes were the No. 1 seller at Party City and the No. 1, 2 and 3 best-sellers at the Disney Store. "Unfortunately, I've been working the last couple of Halloweens but I've seen the kids in the costumes on YouTube," says Cameron. "It is kind of mind-blowing."

And getting more mind-blowing all the time, especially as speculation over the super-secret plotline of Descendants 3 continues to heat up, even spreading beyond the target demographic. "I was at the dentist the other day," says Josann McGibbon, who co-wrote all three Descendants movies with her creative partner Sara Parriott. "And the dental hygienist was asking me who Mal's father was. She had this crazy theory that it was Baloo, the bear from The Jungle Book. Spoiler alert: It's not the bear."