Tuesday, August 11, 2015
We're treading into uncharted waters this week. Welcome to a Disney Channel Original Movie.
So here's a little fun fact about me. During the summer, I'm a camp counselor for a children's day camp. I mostly work with kids between 4 and 12, so I get a whole variety of personalities I encounter. The camp mostly has sport stuff, some arts and crafts, rock wall, swimming, you get the idea. What's important about all of this is that I learn a lot about what's popular with children now-a-days, as I am clearly not a child. For example, Pokemon cards are incredibly popular with kids, more so than the actual video games. Also, kids really don't care that much about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they go crazy over Despicable Me. My point is is that for the past week, my kids have been talking all about this new movie called Descendants and how much they enjoyed it. I vaguely remember hearing about it, so I check my local listings and find that it has a repeat airing that I can record. So I record it and after the intro, I remember instantly what the movie was about and where I heard it.
Descendants is about the descendants of several Disney villains attending a prestigious boarding school for Disney heroes. Mal, the daughter of Maleficent, Evie, the daughter of the Evil Queen, Carlos, the son of Cruella de Ville, and Jay, the son of Jafar, all are chosen to attend this school by Belle and the Beast's son. However, their parents want them to go and steal the Fairy Godmother's wand, who happens to be the headmaster, so they can use her magic to strengthen their own, allowing them to take over the world. The kids go, and slowly learn that while they are the children of villains, is that what really defines them?
So, this being a straight to TV movie, its understandable to set your standards just a tad lower than expected. It's nothing against the movie, but when your contemporaries are the atrocious High School Musical movies and the various My Little Pony: Equestria Girls movies, it's better to play it safe than sorry. Thankfully, while I wouldn't say that Descendants was a masterpiece, far from it, it could have been a lot, LOT worse. At points, it is pretty unbearable to sit through, but other points are actually fairly substantial and are interesting twists on the Disney formula.
Because I'm feeling sadistic, let's just get the bad out of the way because WOW there are some truly awful things in this movie. First off, to my surprise (even though I should have expected it), this turns out to be a musical! I'm actually a bit surprised that I don't cover nearly as many musicals as I do on this site given my expertise, but here we are. The songs in Descendants are awful and the lip syncing is even worse. Watching the lip sync to these songs is like giving a dog a piece of gum, record it chewing said gum, then dubbing the songs over the footage they're that bad. Nothing sounds natural and it's just painful to watch.
The songs don't make said misery any better. These songs are just ear poison to me. Whether it's a "funky fresh" version of "Be Our Guest" that somehow is too white for Disney, and the movie's central song "Rotten to the Core", which is Disney's attempt (?) at doing rap/dubstep, and you can imagine just how bad the results are. It made me question the validity of actually doing the review. If I stop, I don't have to listen to more music. There's just so long a man can expose himself to bad Disney music!
The absolute worst thing in this movie though was Maleficent, played by Broadway alum Kristen Chenowith. I'll be upfront; she's awful in this movie. She doesn't capture the essence of Maleficent, instead playing her as Rita Repulsa. She's brash, loud, and has a voice that's almost as bad as the songs. Kristen is usually a good actress and singer, but this just does not work. When Maleficent is your comic relief, something has gone seriously wrong with your movie. It makes me wonder which was worse; Maleficent in her own movie, or Maleficent here.
It's really hard for me not to have any bile about this movie because it's designed to be a punching bag for me. While I do love Disney and Disney villains in particular, I just have a huge problem when people don't get Disney villains or pre-established characters. When creators twist charter personalities to fit whatever story or moral they want to, it annoys me. While I may say Maleficent is mishandled immensely in this movie, so are all of the villains. They shouldn't be reduced to lame slapstick and humor. They were feared and still regarded as some of the nastiest characters in children's fiction. Seeing them reduced to a sideshow attraction is just demeaning. Thankfully, what saves this movie is the fact that it's focused on their kids, not their parents.
It's very easy to make a story about how the children of established characters learn the same lessons as their parents, or rebel against their parents and completely change who they are, but Descendants doesn't really play that card. All of the children in this movie are their own people with their own personalities and agency. Mal is the most developed of the four, sporting a cynical nature event though she decides to go from evil to good. She still keeps the essence of who she is, but steps away from her parent's shadow. All of the other four also have good character development, like Evie learning to embrace her intelligence and be socially accepted as smart and hot instead of acting dumb and hot for the guys, Carlos learning that everything his mother told him about dogs is a lie and learning to love them, and Jay becoming a team player even though he takes after Aladdin more than his father for some reason. They all have great arcs and are very watchable.
Even the other children featured in this movie have great little personalities. While you have vapid characters like Aurora's daughter and Prince Charming's son who are self centered, entitled brats, the Fairy Godmother's daughter is socially awkward and will do whatever it takes to become accepted. The biggest twist in the movie involves her at the end where she can probably be labeled as the secondary antagonist, but in a unique and interesting way.
But the biggest surprise for me was how it handled the stigma against these villain's children attending the boarding school. The kids don't hold any ill will towards them, but instead their parents do. Belle, the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty's mother are all against having these kids attend the school and view them accountable for their parent's action. Just think, these noble and righteous heroes that we grew up with are actually cemented in old, outdated stereotypes. Maleficent's child is here, so she's responsible for everything that happened to Sleeping Beauty without a doubt. For once, it's the children that have to dispel their parent's racism towards them, which is something that Disney doesn't do all too often. It sullies its own legacy to offer a fresh new way of looking at its tales.
Okay, I might be reading way too much into this, but I find it interesting that a Disney Channel Original Movie actually made me think like that. Whether it was intentional or not, I'm still thinking about its characters, the plot, and what it has to say about the Disney characters it does show here (except for the villains, who are awful in every way, shape, and form). Still, I can't deny that this movie made me think and that it has some genuinely good moments in it. Yes they're not Oscar worthy or even great, but they're not as bad as it could have been. That defines Descendants perfectly. It's not as bad as it could have been.
I may be a bit unfair when I'm reviewing movies like this, who exist solely to market more dolls, start new series, and just be another branch of the Disney Corporate Empire, but it had effort thrown into it. If it didn't have any effort, I would have never even gave this movie a second thought. But there is effort here in some departments and it really does show. Yes it can be grating and painful at times, but those moments aren't too terrible in the long run. I'm not torn up at all about the fact my kids watched this movie. It's fun, if not inoffensive, material for them to watch.
It's a Disney Channel Original Movie. What more do I need to say?