A Review of the Three Descendants Movies That No One Asked For
Maleficent’s daughter looks to camera and announces, through song of course, that she is “rotten to the core.” She’s not alone — the children of this modern Island of Misfit toys sing along with her. There’s Evie, the daughter of Snow White’s Evil Queen; Carlos, perpetually stuck wearing black and white because his mother is Cruella de Vil; and bouncy athletic Jay, the son of Jafar. Mal – as Maleficent’s daughter is known, because all evil children carry with them not just the evil seed of their parents ill intent but also inexplicably their names — is the head of this not-so-evil evil gang in the series of films known as Descendants.
There are three Descendants films, not counting any of the animated material or the short film that is basically a music video to the Kelly Clarkson song “Stronger,’ and there are not likely to be any more. Cameron Boyce, who played Carlos, passed away in 2019 at the age of 20. These three movies then exist as a kind of strange trilogy of what happens when a legendarily closed IP company makes derivative fiction of its own properties. Because Descendants is basically officially licensed fanfiction.
The premise of the franchise is that the son of Belle and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is about to become the King of Auradon, a kingdom that is effectively all of the fantasy kingdoms from Disney properties. Prior to his rule, Belle and the Beast had locked away all of the “bad guys” onto the Isle of the Lost, a fantasy slum inhabited not only by all of the baddies from the Disney franchises but also their children. As his first act of becoming a monarch, Ben (his name is Ben) would like to invite over four of the children to attend his fancy prep school in Auradon. He’s already picked out the four he wants — Evie, Carlos, Jay and Mal. The first film is them inevitably betraying Ben only to figure out that they actually like being in the ritzy prep school and being in love and having access to fresh fruit before ultimately betraying their parents. The greatest travesty of Descendants isn’t just its weird politics but also that the first movie turns Kristin Chenoweth’s delightful Maleficient into a lizard and then you never see her again. The two remaining movies are about the kids settling into their lives at prep school, briefly considering trapping all of their people on the Isle of the Lost cause hey, they might mess up how nice things are on the fancy side of town, and the best character in the franchise Uma, the daughter of Ursula, who is not only a pirate queen but consistently calls out the inherent classism of the V-Kids (what the gang of misfit children refer to themselves as).
They movies are fine. The politics are skewy, which is never great in a piece of media to be consumed by kids, but they’re fine. The weirdest thing about them is just how impossible it is to divorce them from the preexisting Disney universe. It’s perhaps fitting that I saw them on Disney+.
While Disney properties exist as adaptations of classic fairy tales, there’s little doubt that these children are the progeny of their corporate versions. The Evil Queen wears the same outfit she does in the animated film, Belle is only seen in ballroom yellow, etc. TikTok cosplay adaptations of future generations of Disney characters possess more subtlety.
This is what happens, perhaps, when you lock down your own IP, that you then mine for direct-to-TV musical adaptations that will clearly read to children that will then someday buy related pieces from the Disney Store and Loungefly. It’s a complicated process only a television executive would find charming, and yet, they’ve made three of these films.
It’s interesting dissecting them as processes of their own dynastic media kingdoms. These children, the sons and daughters of Kings and Evil Queens alike, exist only as shadows of their parents, parents from whom they were seemingly produced asexually. Carlos is the son of Cruella de Vil, but who does he call his father? How did Jafar give birth to Jay? Who knows? It isn’t til the third movie that we learn that Mal’s deadbeat dad is Hades, in what feels like an act of queer erasure, and she’s the only one of the V-Kids who has a second parent. In a smarter film this would be an artistic decision – perhaps a commentary on broken homes in a slum – in Descendants it’s just easier if the kids only have one parent to get their traits from. The children of the heroes are no better, though perhaps due to a lack of queer coding and because Disney movies are so frequently couched in love they have the implication of two parents having a happy ending in their happily ever after.
Descendants exists as derivative fiction of Disneys pre-existing properties, a way to tap into a slightly older (but not too much older) audience that would love to see Dove Cameron dramatically sing about being bad while dressed in an above-average Halloween version of a sexy teen Maleficent. These kids, they can’t help being bad. They were just constructed that way by a faceless corporate juggernaut and Kenny Ortega.