Mal (Dove Cameron) and her mom, Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth), in Descendants (Jack Rowand/Disney Channel)
No studio has a tighter control of its product than Disney, which makes Descendants all the more surprising. Disney is known both for its animated features based on centuries-old fairy tales, while its television arm makes tween-friendly stories about modern children meant to catapult fresh-scrubbed teens into film and pop stardom. Descendants chooses to take both parts of the Disney machine and blend them into a mishmash of styles. It may lack the factory-made precision of Disney’s other product but might be all the more enjoyable for the tween girls who devour the Disney brand.
Descendants has the son of Belle and Beast, Ben (Mitchell Hope, whose wind-swept hair and captain-of-the-soccer-team look prove that the assembly line that designed Zac Efron remains intact), deciding to allow the children of Disney villains like Maleficent, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Jafar and Cruella De Vil to move to the kingdom that he will soon take over from the abdicating Beast. Mal (Dove Cameron, clearly positioned to inherit the Disney roles that Selena Gomez has outgrown), the daughter of Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth), plots to overthrow the new king so that her mother can rule the fictional kingdom, a place that has both magic mirrors and stretch limousines.
This is the first major role for Chenoweth in a Disney production. Even though the Tony winner is associated with perhaps the two most Disney-like productions that the Mouse House never made (“Wicked” and “Glee”), she has so far never had the opportunity that her co-star Idina Menzel did. Chenoweth doesn’t have her “Let It Go” moment in Descendants, but she gets to belt out songs and have the campy fun that only a Broadway veteran can provide. As the Evil Queen, Kathy Najimy has less to do but still shows why she has been a reliable supporting player since Sister Act over 20 years ago.
Descendants is thus an explicit jumble of High School Musical and the Disney movies that every 12-year-old girl can recite by heart. It has the qualities that mark most of the work by Disney – the somewhat contradictory push for both self-esteem and self-improvement is here, while the unabashed sentiment (Cruella De Vil’s son bonds with a puppy!) is as irresistible as it is unavoidable – but it also feels looser and often appealingly nutty. It feels as if the suits at Disney gave director Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) his budget and cast, then told him he could go crazy without any supervision.
This makes Descendants feel like the ultimate Disney product, as if one distilled all the qualities for which the company is known and then freebased it. This may not be the next Frozen, but it may prove as potent as heroin for the Disney tween audience.
Premieres July 31 at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel
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