Sunday, August 2, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Disney's Descendants.

It’s the Disney castle again, folks!  That means it’s time to review another Disney production!  It also means I couldn’t find any free-use pictures from the movie and I’m still too cheap to subscribe to an image service.
"When you wish upon a theme park . . ."
 Okay, so that’s not completely true.  I did find a picture of one of the actors.
A young Cameron Boyce who plays Carlos DeVil in Descendants
Anyway, it’s time to review Disney’s Descendants.  Descendants is Disney’s latest mash-up of characters and concepts from its various animated films.  It’s hardly the first mash-up of this type.  Some folks around here will remember the Kingdom Hearts video game series, which was like a Disney mash-up for anime fans who love convoluted plots.  Then there was Once Upon a Time which was a Disney mash-up that hid for about a season under the guise of a general fairy tale mash-up.  Descendants, on the other hand, is a mash-up that seems squarely aimed at the Disney Channel audience.  It also appears to be a mash-up that seems focused on competing with another fairy tale mash-up for young girls, Ever After High.

The movie starts out with a description of the premise.  It seems that after Belle married her Beast, the ex-Beast set out to unite the various Disney movie kingdoms into one big kingdom called the United States of Auradon.  He then rounded up all the villains and henchmen and stuck them on an island surrounded by a magical barrier called The Isle of the Lost.  The villains stayed there and had their own little families while the villain parents continued to sit and plot away as they are wont to do.  As you can tell, much like Ever After High, this movie asks you not to sweat the details.  Details like why everything is so modern, how all these villains are still alive after the climax of their respective movies, who the other parents are to these villain kids, and how the Beast could unite kingdoms as diverse as Agrabah and Atlantica as well as parts of France, India, China and 20th Century London all under one banner.  Like I said, don’t sweat it.

Anyway, we cut to Belle and Beast’s son Ben (there’s a trend of using alliteration for the next generation characters’ names here.  It may be a bit lazy, but also better than Ever After High’s tendency of building the names on puns).  Ben’s getting fitted for a suit for his coronation when he tells his parents what his first kingly proclamation will be.  He has decided that the children of the Island of the Lost should have the chance to live and go to school in Auradon.  He’s even picked the first four that he wants to try out.  They are Carlos the son of Cruella DeVil, Jay the son of Jafar, Evie the daughter of the Evil Queen and Mal the daughter of Maleficent.

Then, of course, we cut to the Isle of the Lost where we’re introduced to our infamous “villain kids” as they tear around what appears to be a Disneyfied, candy-colored slum while singing the song “Rotten to the Core” (did I mention this is a musical?  Well, it is).  Anyway, at the climax of their performance, Maleficent shows up to tell the foursome that they have been chosen to leave the island to go to Auradon Prep.  We then cut to Maleficent’s lair where all the villain parents are gathered to talk about the situation and come up with a plan for their offspring to carry out.


Those villains!  Those grown-up villains!  I’m sorry but while the kids are actually fun to watch in their own way, their parents manage to camp it up every time they’re on screen.  Usually, I’m okay with cheesiness.  After all, I’m a ‘50s sci-fi fan and a Super Sentai fan.  Still, this is a little much.  I suppose the intention is to show that these middle-aged villains have all gone to seed on this island, but it’s still a bit painful to watch.
Anyway, the ultimate plan is for them to steal the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand so that they can take down the barrier and spread evil across the world (points for ambition).

From here, we get into the bulk of the movie as the would-be villainous four attempt to steal the wand  while simultaneously being wooed to the side of good by the various amenities of Auradon as well as their burgeoning consciences.  If you’re okay with Disney teen movies, then you’ll probably be okay with watching our various heroes/antiheroes struggle between filial duty and the new life they found at the school.  Each learn their little lesson.  Jay discovers sports and finds out that working with a team can be better than just looking out for yourself.  Carlos overcomes the fear of dogs that his mother drilled into him since he was little (as someone who knows their obscure Disney canon, I was kind of hoping the dog in question would be Scamp).  Evie discovers that she’s smarter than she thought and that she doesn’t have to play dumb and win over a rich prince.  And Mal just generally grows a conscience around the time she falls in love with king-to-be Ben.  In fact, there’s a clever little bit regarding a love potion during that plotline.  Of course, as you may expect, not everything they do is so good.  They try to break into a museum, plot to disrupt a coronation and play with the self esteem of the Fairy Godmother’s daughter Jane.

Now, do I think this is a great movie?  No.  Do I think it’s horrible?  Barring the campy scenes with the villain parents, no I don’t.  It’s not so much bad as just ridiculous.  This is about what I’d expect from a Disney Channel Original Movie.  If the truth is to be told, I tend to find fairy tale character mash-ups a lot easier to take when they’re played for laughs.

If we’re being entirely honest here, the audience for fairy tale related media has gotten a lot wider in recent years.  So, a lot of this will come down to personal taste.  Many adults will see a project like this and think it looks terrible while some kids will look at it and think it looks great.  On the other hand, many adults who are fairy tale fans will look at something like the indie film Beast and think it looks great while I look at it and think it looks a little too bleak and dark for my tastes.

We’ll likely be seeing more of Descendants as the months go by.  There are fashion dolls planned for the girl characters as well as animated shorts coming out in September (boy, does that approach sound awfully familiar).  So, with the Disney marketing machine poised to bring out more Descendants, we can at least rest assured that it’s little more than a silly but ultimately harmless product.

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