Disney Channel’s Original Movie Descendants from 2015 is the best DCOM fairy-tale/princess film.
The premise is simple. Twenty years after Beauty and the Beast united the fairy tale world and banished all the baddies to the Isle of Lost, their son Ben has proclaimed on the eve of his 16th birthday and impending coronation that 4 children of the villains will leave the Isle (slum). Prince Ben is my new favorite because he believes in giving the villain kids a chance.
That is, Mal, Carlos, Jay, and Evie. The children of Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Jafar, and the Evil Queen respectively, they were raised to believe in the ways of their (single?) parents. Mal knows she has to be evil, and Carlos is terrified of dogs. Jay has to work at his dad’s antique store, and Evie thinks she needs a boy to succeed in life.
Back at Auradon Prep, we have Prince Ben, Princess Audrey (Aurora’s daughter), Prince Chad Charming (Cinderella’s son), Doug (Dopey’s son), Jane (Godmother’s daughter), and Lonnie (Mulan’s daughter.)
The introduction of the kids is what really piqued my interest in finishing the film. None of the ethnic backgrounds of any of the families makes much sense. In the families that we see both a child and parent, the majority are multiracial. Actors of color portray Carlos, Evie, Jay, Cruella, Evil Queen, Jafar, Princess Audrey, and her grandmother. Though the film does not really refer to this, it is still a huge deal because there are very few scenes without any people of color. (Moments with Mal and her mother, or Prince Ben and his family for example.) This film might be DCOM’s most diverse since the Cheetah Girls series!
Secondly, the premise is actually engaging because it reflects the original fairy tales we all know and love. The parents task their children with stealing the magic wand to break the barrier between Auradon and the Isle because revenge. It is clear from the first scene between Mal and Ben who have chemistry that she may be rethinking her support of Maleficent.
Slowly the plot shifts with the four realizing they do not want to be evil. Mal becomes uneasy at going against the Fairy Godmother who has been teaching them Remedial Goodness 101 and actually begins to fall in love with Ben to whom she had given a love potion. Evie realizes slowly but surely that she does not need to dumb herself down to be with anyone, which is an awesome lesson for the young Disney viewer. Carlos and Jay both join the school’s tourney team, where Carlos finally gets over his fear of dogs and Jay comes into his own.
In a truly superb scene between Evie and Mal, the two are talking about their moms and being afraid of them. They want to make their moms proud and believe that they love them in their own way. No kid should be afraid of their parent! Ever! So for this to be in a Disney movie is so huge. Are the kids inherently evil because they have been raised that way or because they share DNA with some of the worst villains?
Good vs. Evil and Consequences
Simultaneously, the film investigates the issue of good vs. evil. If the four are bad people, then why are they the ones that Ben and Doug become friends with so quickly? One is the son of the two who locked all the baddies away in a slum without wi-fi or anyway to leave, and Dopey’s son whose father most definitely knows what the Evil Queen is like. Yet they are quick to welcome the four and help them integrate into Auradon Prep.
On the flip side, Audrey and Chad are terrible to the four. Audrey because she is jealous of Mal and Chad because Evie does better in chemistry lab than he does. To be fair, that is natural and expected teen behavior especially in a Disney film. In context of how they treat the four with utmost disdain and work to make their lives miserable, however; good vs. evil is highlighted well here.
Finally, consequences!. For example, Mal almost immediately feels guilty for what she is doing to Ben (as she should) and on the day of the coronation gives him the cure in a cookie. It turns out though that Ben has known since their first date and has actually liked Mal for who she is! (They’re honestly really cute.)
Of course, everything goes to hell because of surprisingly (or not because “good” characters can do crappy things too) the fairy godmother’s daughter. Earlier in the film, Mal had given Jane a makeover to help her with her confidence but taken the makeover away when at a meet the parents’ event, she turned her back on Mal when Audrey’s grandmother rails at the four kids. (Here we see how good can truly be the bad and how prejudices can run deep.)
After Mal gives a great speech about how she chooses to be good, Jane actually grabs the magic wand and causes a rift to appear allowing Maleficent through who turns into a dragon and almost kills her own daughter!
Fortunately, Mal refuses to stand down and reads a spell that in true fairy tale fashion turns Maleficent into a dragon the size of the love in her heart. So about six inches long. A just punishment reflecting those of the original fairy tales. The rest of Auradon realizes that the four really are good and the film ends with a musical number.
With awesome music, color conscious casting, an interesting take on good vs. evil, and a solid understanding of fairy tale dynamics and consequences, Descendants is truly spectacular.
(By the way, the sequel which follows the four’s return to the Isle where Ursula’s daughter has taken over with Gaston’s son and Captain Hook’s son as backup comes out this summer!)