NEW YORK (CNS) — The soundtrack of Disney’s new television movie “Descendants 2” features overproduced and elaborately choreographed pop/hip-hop dance numbers and oversung, power pop-country anthems.
It seems the movie’s producers are betting that this musical candy — which made the original “Descendants” popular with tween girls in 2015 — will encourage them to tune in when the sequel debuts Friday, July 21. In an unusual move, the film will air simultaneously 8-10 p.m. EDT on six of the channels that make up the Disney-ABC family of networks, including those from which the company takes its name as well as the Lifetime brand.
Although nothing offends in “Descendants 2,” some dialogue about “running wild and breaking the rules,” and lyrics about “chillin’ like a villain” — along with some mildly suggestive dancing — may not send the best signals to impressionable youngsters.
The Descendants are the issue of iconic Disney characters. In the first movie, Ben (Mitchell Hope), the son of the titular duo from “Beauty and the Beast,” assumed the throne of the United States of Auradon. The new boy king, as his first official act, liberated four villains from the Isle of the Lost, a slum where his father had exiled all such miscreants.
In the sequel, this quartet — Mal (Dove Cameron), the daughter of Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis Maleficent; Carlos (Cameron Boyce), the son of Cruella De Vil; Jay (Booboo Stewart), offspring of Aladdin’s foe, Jafar; and the Evil Queen’s daughter Evie (Sofia Carson) — are trying to fit in as high school students at Auradon Prep.
Unhappy because she feels pressure to live up to the expectations associated with being King Ben’s girlfriend, Mal eventually returns to the Isle of the Lost, where she feels more at home. When Ben, accompanied by Jay, Carlos and Evie, arrives to rescue Mal, however, events take an unexpected turn.
In the end, it’s Mal who must save Ben from the clutches of her adversary, Uma (China Anne McClain), the daughter of Ursula, the sea witch from “The Little Mermaid.” A pirate, Uma now rules the isle, which Mal once ran. And Uma is envious because Ben slighted her when he didn’t pick her to return with him to Auradon. Uma’s desire for revenge animates the story’s climax.
Having directed the original “Descendants,” Kenny Ortega invigorates the musical numbers with an appealing energy. The costumes, props and set designs are all suffuse with garish colors, which give viewers the impression they’re watching a hybrid of real action and animation.
But the film’s murky moral messages are problematic. In the opening song-and-dance number, for instance, the high school students sing about demonstrating “the right side of wrong,” and declare “evil is the only real way to win.”
In a more straightforward conversion story, the self-declared villains might live up to their roles until belatedly realizing they aren’t “rotten to core,” as one lyric puts it. But here they continually insist on their basic goodness from the start.
Thus, screenwriters Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott seem to confuse actual wrongdoing with these characters’ outsider status in Auradon. Perhaps only a lack of understanding on the part of their peers renders them villains? Or are viewers to conclude that what the script calls evil is just an alternate form of goodness?
The messages the movie conveys about the two worlds between which the villains feel caught is also troubling.
Auradon is portrayed as a desirable place of privilege, whereas the people condemned to the Isle of the Lost depend on the king’s munificence to escape it. And if they do, they will be better off — so the audience comes to understand — if they figure out a way to get along in Auradon, even if that means not being true to themselves.
The script perpetuates stereotypes about people who live in poor neighborhoods having to steal and cheat to survive. The fact that the movie’s only major African-American character, Uma, is also its principal antagonist, moreover, will not sit well with culturally sensitive viewers. Nor are they likely to be placated simply because Mal says to Uma, at the end, “you are more than a villain.”
The producers behind “Descendants 2” may shrewdly succeed in hooking young viewers with their clever use of pop songs. But parents should be aware that the film sends mixed and unsettling ethical messages. At the very least, these should be made the starting point for a discussion of the mutually exclusive realities of good and evil as they are portrayed in Scripture and the tradition of the church.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.