Descendants 2 (2017)

Long live evil.

The Descendants films are a lot of fun. They’re just so upbeat and watchable — I’ve thrown parts 2 and 3 on recently at work. Sure, they’re cheesy and wholly disposable, but the films are reeling with so much enthusiasm, vibrancy, and flair that they’re kind of irresistible. And the premise of Villain Kids (or VKs for short) — sons and daughters of well-known Walt Disney bad guys — trying not to follow in their parents’ nefarious footsteps is interesting both narratively and creatively. The Descendants movies have also given today’s kids their own now-iconic entertainment property, even if these characters are inspired by/ have been molded from classic Disney films.

Directed by the king of the Disney Channel Original Movie Kenny Ortega — the man behind the famed High School Musical trilogy (2006-08) — Descendants 2 is an enjoyable, light-hearted entertainer, and a real pick-me-up, despite tackling heavier subject matter than its precursor. The film effortlessly checks all the right boxes and caters to the Disney Channel’s prime demographic of young’uns and adolescents; heck, it’s even got something for oldies (like me). Ortega, who, at this point in his career, has clearly perfected his craft, gives audiences the cheery, radiant, small-screen musical spectacular they’ve come to expect from the DCOM brand. Descendants 2 boasts a heap of lively musical numbers, dazzling costumes, and has a satisfying amount of family-friendly fantasy action. It also features a cast of spirited young up-and-comers who shine in their respective roles.

‘Is this a cookbook or a spell book?’

Things kick off with an explosively energetic song-and-dance sequence, titled ‘Ways to Be Wicked,’ which sees the VKs proclaim their villainy by causing mischief and mayhem (cheekily and playfully, of course) in and around Auradon Prep. This fun, frisky track, released months before the film’s Disney Channel debut, has got some choice lyrics, too. It’s in this music-video-like opener that we’re reintroduced to the Villain Kids, who recently found their inner goodness: Mal, daughter of Maleficent (Dove Cameron); Evie, daughter of The Evil Queen (Sofia Carson); Carlos, son of Cruella de Vil (Cameron Boyce); and Jay, son of Jafar (Booboo Stewart).

From there, we quickly learn that the once-troubled teens have begun to comfortably settle into their new life in the United States of Auradon, homeland to all the Disney heroes, where they’ve been given the chance to start anew. The core four departed the Isle of the Lost in the prior Descendants chapter — a cursed, magicless, slum-like prison island that houses all the Disney antagonists and their offspring. The VKs, who now attend a swanky private school, have made a ton of new friends, leaving the rundown Isle and their rotten roots behind them — well, mostly.

‘Don’t just sit there. It’s time to dance.’

Poor Mal is struggling with Auradonian life, mainly her newly instilled royalty status; she’s the girlfriend of the charming King Ben (Mitchell Hope), son of Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Beast (Dan Payne), who govern the land. Mal is insecure with her newfound celebrity standing and prissy good girl image — so much so that she’s ditched her signature purple hair and given herself blonde locks to fit the mold of the archetypal princess. As a coping mechanism, she is using her mother’s spellbook to solve all her problems. When Ben discovers Mal’s reliance on magic, she comes clean about her uncertainties, which causes a falling-out between the pair. As a result, Mal, who feels as though she doesn’t fit in, secretly flees Auradon and returns to the Isle of the Lost, the island town now ruled by her ex-rival, Ursula’s bitter daughter Uma (China Anne McClain).

Uma is captain of a crew of unruly pirates, which includes her slithery sidekicks Harry Hook (a scenery-chewing Thomas Doherty) and Gil (Dylan Playfair), the sons of Captain Hook and Gaston, respectively. Uma, you see, has been plotting her revenge against Mal for many years. So, when she hears that her archenemy has returned home, Uma ignites a sinister plan to steal Fairy Godmother’s Wand to break the barrier between the penitentiary Isle and the prosperous Auradon. If successful, Uma will unleash all the evildoers imprisoned on the desolate Isle once and for all, seizing the spotlight off Mal and her pals. When the VKs learn that Mal has run off, they mount a rescue mission to bring her home, which involves Ben going undercover as a villain — and he’s no good at being bad.

Welcome to my wicked wardrobe!

Descendants 2 succeeds as both a continuation of the previous installment and a fun ‘What if?’ extension of the Disney universe on which the films are based. This time, though, much of the proceedings take place on the Isle of the Lost as the VKs return to their former home to search for Mal, with the bulk of the action happening in and around the island’s port. This paves the way for some fancy, well-choreographed high-seas sword-fighting, which gives the flick a quasi-Pirates of the Caribbean flavor. Being a follow-up, the sets are more extensive, and the costumes are louder; the film, just like the first, has a stage show feel about it. Things, however, get a little silly in the third act, where a couple of unconvincing CGI creatures have a spat on the ocean; the water FX, though, are surprisingly good for a Disney Channel pic. Descendants 2 is also brimming with Disney iconography — think bubbling cauldrons and poison red apples — as well as nods to the wider universe — you can spot an image of Ursula (in cartoon form) plastered outside of her Fish & ‘Chip Shoppe.’ Oh, and there’s a talking dog — kids dig dogs, especially ones that can talk.

With that said, Descendants 2 is weightier than its predecessor. It explores themes of acceptance and the importance of recognizing the value of others, regardless of one’s lineage or birthplace. Penned by returning scribes Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon (who also produce), the film highlights class inequity; this is particularly evident through the character of Uma, who, through no fault of her own, happens to live on the Isle — having an actress of color in the role helps to underscore this idea. Although being the film’s antagonist, Uma isn’t evil per se; sure, she’s a little jealous and jaded, but she’s simply a victim of circumstance, fighting for a better life for herself and her friends. The Isle is presented as a ghetto of sorts, albeit a flashy one, adorned with cool graffiti art. It’s a place plagued by poverty and populated with people, including very young children, who could amount to so much more if not for the unfortunate place of their birth. The character of Dizzy Tremaine (Anna Cathcart) is a prime example; she’s a talented hairstylist with a kind heart, who’s been held back simply because of poor choices made by her mother Drizella (one of Cinderella’s nasty stepsisters).

‘What’s my name, what’s my name?’

Sofia Carson, who can do no wrong in my book, is the cast MVP. Evie shows genuine compassion for the impoverished Isle children, knowing she once suffered as they do — and this wholly resonates. At one point, Evie lets a couple of pickpocket street kids pinch her wallet. Having found contentment as a fashion guru in the privileged Auradon, Evie longs for the day when Dizzy can accompany her; she’s sympathetic and aching for equality, which makes the character hugely admirable. Not only is Evie’s storyline the most poignant, but Carson gets the best song-and-dance ditty, too, the super catchy ‘Chillin’ Like a Villain.’ Dove Cameron is okay as Mal, even if her crisis of self feels a tad melodramatic and her arc a little muted; filmmakers don’t commit to her plight as much as they ought to — it honestly doesn’t seem as though Mal is pretending to be something she’s not, despite missing her days as a baddie. Even so, Mal’s relationship with Evie is touching and helps anchor the drama.

Series newcomer China Anne McClain, Hubie Halloween (2020), leaves an impression as Uma; she has solid screen presence, and her song ‘What’s My Name?’ is addictive as hell. Filmmakers have real fun with the Uma character; there’s a refreshing role reversal that sees an overly apologetic Ben become the ‘damsel in distress,’ with Uma and her swashbuckling thugs somewhat emasculating him. Mitchell Hope is decent in the role of Ben, bringing naivety to his sheltered prince (I love Mitchell’s goofy, awkward dance moves in ‘Chilin’ Like a Villain’). Booboo Stewart embraces the role of Jay, who’s somewhat of a star athlete now at the Auradon school. Lastly, the late Cameron Boyce gives a committed turn as Carlos, who’s trying to work up the nerve to ask Jane (the Fairy Godmother’s daughter, played by Brenna D’Amico) to the Royal Cotillion. At this grand party, Mal will be officially introduced as a Lady of the Court. Oh, and, as far as the VKs’ infamous parents go, well, they’re nowhere in sight — bar Maleficent, who only appears in lizard form.

It’s going’ down!

Concluding with a big splashy dance sequence aboard the royal Auradonian yacht, Descendants 2 has a relatively happy ending, honoring its fairy-tail origins; this is a live-action fairy-tale after all. Descendants 2 is tuneful, feel-good stuff that happens to serve up some profound messages. It’s also got repeat viewing value, which is another thumbs up. It doesn’t break any new ground, nor will it change your life, but it’ll sure as hell make you smile — kids will especially eat this up. If you’re like me and can’t get enough of the ridiculously good-looking Villain Kids, check out their CARscendants videos — yes, these are gimmicky but they’re ace!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)

Descendants 2 is released through Disney Australia