'Descendants': TV Review

Descendants Still - H 2015
Jack Rowand/Disney Channel

Descendants Still - H 2015

Once Upon a High School Musical.

The children of Disney villains are the heroes in the newest offering from director and choreographer Kenny Ortega.

Sometimes you just have to sit back and admire the sheer marketing genius of an idea.

Descendants, the new Disney Channel movie premiering this Friday, is High School Musical meets Once Upon a Time. It smartly ushers little girls who have grown up watching Disney movies into the tween audience and is an idea so ripe for merchandising that the Disney Store is already chock-full of Descendants costumes, dolls and T-shirts. The soundtrack and movie are both available for purchase starting Friday. Parents, get your wallets out.

In the movie, all the Disney villains have been forced to live on the Isle of the Lost for the last 20 years. They have been stripped of their powers but not, it seems, of their ability to have children. The violet-coiffed Mal (Dove Cameron) is the daughter of Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth). Prince-hungry Evie (Sofia Carson) is the offspring of the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy). Dog-hating Carlos (Cameron Boyce) is the son of Cruella de Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson), and pickpocket Jay (Booboo Stewart) calls Jafar (Maz Jobrani) his dad. In classic Disney tradition, they all only have one parent. But, hey, at least this time, some of the moms are alive!

When Ben (Mitchell Hope), the son of Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and the Beast (Dan Payne), is about to be made king, he decides to let the villains’ children return to the kingdom and attend Auradon Prep. “Their children are innocent. Don’t you think they deserve a shot at a normal life?” Ben asks his father.

The villains see this as an opportunity to reclaim their evil domination and exact their revenge. All their children need to do is get the magic wand back from the Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson). “Remember when we were spreading evil and ruining lives?” asks Maleficent.

Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega brings the same approach he used with High School Musical to the film. The rather flimsy story is strung together by musical numbers — some stronger than others. You don’t hire Tony winner Chenoweth unless you want to hear her belt out a showstopper like “Evil Like Me.” It’s a performance so fantastic that, days later, I still was humming the tune. “Rotten to the Core,” which introduces the four villainous offspring, is fun, too.

But the hip-hop remix version of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast falls flat. Perhaps it's because Ben is Prince Charmless: an extremely boring, bland royal. Often the lip-syncing in the musical numbers is off (a definite distraction), and suffice it to say that some of the young stars are better dancers than others.

Of course, there’s a love story, with Mal and Ben as the star-crossed sweethearts who fall for each other far too quickly, in true Disney fashion. Mal and her friends set out to prove to their parents that they are “evil and vicious and ruthless and cruel," but they soon realize they need to forge a new path for themselves.

Along the way, there are a bevy of children of Disney characters to be introduced — and lots of inside jokes. “As you may have heard, I have a little thing about curfews,” says the Fairy Godmother. Chenoweth, Robinson, Najimy and Jobrani are having a ball, camping it up with outrageously entertaining results. If the movie were on a different network, they would be the stars of the show.

Will Descendants create the next Zac Efron or Vanessa Hudgens? Of the crowd, Cameron seems to have the most star potential.

Since this is a Disney production, there’s practically a guarantee there will be more Descendants. Perhaps a TV series? Maybe a Descendants 2 and a Descendants 3? There are plenty of fairy tales and princesses left to be explored. “You didn’t think this was the end of the story, did you?” asks Mal during the closing musical number. No, no we did not.