For a lot of young Disney fans (and also certain people who get their kicks complaining about subpar movies on the internet), Descendants 2 was one of the most anticipated films of the year. I remember the days when I thought Disney was really going to take this idea seriously, and put some effort into writing a movie that, paired with a good plot and the inherent entertainment factor of franchise mashing, also raised some interesting questions about the Disney canon and its many beloved characters. As soon as I learned it would be a made-for-TV movie relegated to the Disney Channel, I knew that I’d been very wrong. But no matter how bad that first movie was, I’ve never really had it in me to hate this franchise (I can’t believe it’s a franchise now). What the two films lack in quality, they mostly make up for with a highly entertaining movie-going experience.
As per the custom, I’ll start with the bad. The acting in this movie is, for the most part, not so great. One character in particular stands out: Ben, played stiffly by Mitchell Hope (he reminds me a little of Freddie Highmore, if Freddie Highmore were really bad at acting). I have to attribute part of this to the fact that Hope is a young Australian actor who had to put on an accent for the film, but you can’t deny that his efforts to do this are really harming his delivery.
It’s difficult to willingly associate this movie with the classic Disney properties, since the script is constantly waving around homages to your favorite characters, but never (ever) lets you enjoy them. Imagine if every Disney reference in Once Upon A Time was thrown at your face like a big sack of spellbooks. It gets to the point where even the implied existence of these beloved Disney characters is seriously harming the characters who actually move the story forward. The major players of Descendants and Descendants 2 barely get the chance to stand on their own merits, because the movie’s too obsessed with who their parents are to give them any of their own personality traits. I mean, just look at their names!
As for the movie’s more superficial aspects, the costuming and set design are (for the most part) barely passable. Outrageous fashion choices don’t have to take your audience out of the movie; Just look at The Hunger Games. Is it an Isle thing to always look like you’ve just stolen some kid’s Halloween costume? Are their style choices deliberately edgy as a fuck-you to the clean-cut Auradon folks that cast them out? Why did I mistake Gaston’s son for some random pirate’s kid?
I’m not done here yet, but I feel like it’s a good idea to take a break, lest everyone think I really hated this movie. Because I didn’t. I actually enjoyed it (much more than the original), for a few reasons.
First of all, Descendants 2’s saving grace is China Anne McClain. She’s a genuinely good actress with skills in both music and comedy, and apparently, she’s also pretty great at being terrifying.
Her character, Uma, and her pirate poser companion Harry Hook, worked well together as villains. There was something genuine in McClain’s performance, a kind of expressiveness that you don’t usually see in young actors on Disney Channel. It’d be really cool to see her use this role as a springboard, and launch a successful acting/singing career outside of the Disney canon.
Speaking of singing, the music of Descendants 2 is much more bearable than the original film’s (although they don’t have Kristin Chenoweth this time). The tracklist is still full of pseudo-pop numbers, but hey, plenty of people find those appealing, and even I can’t deny that “Chillin’ Like a Villain” is kind of a cute song. Another good one comes up during the big fight sequence towards the end of the movie. Later on, Uma even has a reprise of her introductory number, which I (wrongly) thought was too sophisticated for the made-for-TV kind of musical. I made the mistake of forgetting who produced Descendants 2 in the first place. When it comes to music, Disney still has an excellent track record.
Plotwise, it kept me (and my sixteen-year-old sister, and my ten and twelve-year-old cousins) interested. Mulan’s daughter had a feminist subplot, which was pretty cool. Ben surprised me with some character development. Carlos De Vil, my favorite character by far, sat down with his villain friends and had a conversation that really progressed their friendship, in a way the first movie never did. There was also *SPOILERS AHEAD* a pretty decent plot twist. We’re led to believe that Mal’s losing her spellbook is some form of symbolism, possibly representing her renouncing magic and embracing a more genuine way of living. But, as it turns out, the physical book really does matter, because it ends up falling right into the wrong hands.
Also, this is the first movie I’ve ever seen use a talking dog as a Chekov’s gun, so kudos there, I guess?
As I’ve said before, one of the things that bothers me most about the Descendants universe is that all of the characters are defined by the singular personality trait of “My Mom/Dad is (insert beloved Disney character here)!” Because they don’t have much motivation beyond their family ties, all of the “villain” kids seem more attracted to the concept of being a Bad Kid than the actual doing of evil deeds. Even major villains who have committed countless atrocities in their original narratives are more likely to parade around yelling about how mean they are than to actually do anything immoral. Just because Descendants is for kids doesn’t mean that its interpretations of Good and Evil have to be cartoonish. Even the Good Guys seem to believe that morality is only black and white. Shouldn’t the goal of the King and Queen be to someday bring down the barrier between the worlds of heroes and villains, rather than protect it while preaching fear and caution to their citizens? Certainly Beauty and The Beast’s Adam and Belle would have an easier time understanding than any other royal couple.
The thing that annoys me most about this movie, though, is that at times, it doesn’t seem like the writers even bothered to research their source material. I don’t doubt that Gaston has children all over the place, but in Descendants 2, his son Gil definitely references his father as if he were alive. Which, as we all know from every reincarnation of Beauty and the Beast, is definitely untrue.
Descendants 2 ended in (I kid you not) almost exactly the same way as the first movie: with the promise/threat of another sequel. Maybe I shouldn’t judge Disney Channel Original Movies so harshly, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel right to be holding Disney movies to one standard and Disney Channel movies to another. That being said, I can’t make fun of this one as much as I did the first movie. It was so much better.
I should have believed you, Dove Cameron!!
Because it had this grand premise and nowhere to go with it, Descendants ended up with a bunch of random subplots and no way to string them all together well. The sequel linked its various plots in such a way that they actually affected each other, which boosts it that much higher than the original in my rankings. However, there’s one thing this movie did that I simply cannot forgive.
IT WASTED WHOOPI GOLDBERG ON AN OFFSCREEN ONE-LINER. THAT’S SOMETHING YOU JUST SHOULDN’T DO.
P.S. Another thing that ruins your immersion is the fact that someone felt the need to show flashbacks from the other movie during one of the musical numbers, as if they need to pad its 2+ hour runtime.
P.P.S. I’d also like to give a small shout-out to Sofia Carson, who I’ve always liked a lot as Evie.