“Descendants” review: Fun Disney TV movie takes up the tale of famous villains …

31 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

“Descendants” review: Fun Disney TV movie takes up the tale of famous villains’ kids.

You can pass along everything you’ve learned, steer them in all the directions you want them to travel, and sometimes they still grow up good instead of evil. When they created dance moves for Disney Channel movie “Descendants,” director-choreographer Kenny Ortega and co-choreographer Paul Becker faced no less a challenge than expressing the conflict in the human mind between good and evil.

Largely threading the needle between Disney Channel’s tween audience and family members who will relish its ties to the broader Disney fairy-tale universe, “Descendants” is a playful and tuneful TV movie, exhibiting much higher ambitions than, say, the “Teen Beach” franchise. So you have to feel some sympathy in “Descendants” for Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth), Cruella de Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson), the Evil Queen (Kathy Nijimy) and Jafar (Maz Jobrani), four legendary but defeated Disney villains whose hope for regaining their power suddenly lies in the hands of their children. The smallscreen feature, which bows July 31, focuses on the teenage kids of classic Disney villains as they attend prep school with the children of Disney heroes. Granted, one might wish the focus tilted a bit more heavily toward the adults — Kristin Chenoweth as Maleficent steals every scene she’s in — or that the second half wasn’t as heavily padded.

Citizens of the idyllic kingdom of Auradon, who long ago exiled the villains to the Isle of the Lost, decide the villains’ kids should be allowed to attend school in Auradon. Michael Monday Since 1997, the cable network has churned out nearly 100 original movies for kids and preteens, from early pacesetters Halloweentown and Johnny Tsunami to feature-length spinoffs of series such as The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Wizards of Waverly Place.

As with so many projects at the Burbank, California-based company, toys, dolls, a soundtrack album and Halloween costumes will be ready on store shelves after the movie begins its run on the small screen. But none have come close to the pop-culture ubiquity of 2006’s High School Musical — lightning in a bottle the channel has tried replicating with musicals Camp Rock (starring the Jonas brothers and Demi Lovato),Teen Beach Movie and Lemonade Mouth.

When offered a shot at redemption and to make, per Ortega, “choices of their own that will determine who they become,” they’re not sure in which direction to go. With “Descendants,” the world’s largest entertainment company is creating a universe of new characters from the ones kids and parents already know — in this case, the offspring of famous villains from animated classics. Fairy tales and princesses generate $2.89 billion in annual merchandise revenue for Disney and partners like Hasbro Inc., according to the Licensing Letter. Alas, Maleficent dispatches them with plans of stealing the wand of Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson, also a hoot), thus paving the way to unleash the sorceress back on the world. “Descendants” thus engages in a somewhat predictable nature/nurture argument, with the four transplants starting to like their new home, while Mal — initially the most committed to the notion of DNA determining destiny — gradually beginning to fall for Ben.

It’s a business that’s attracting competition from Mattel Inc., Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures. “This allows Disney to protect its turf,” said Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York. “They’re all about fairy tales. Set at an elite prep school attended by the heirs of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and princesses Belle and Aurora, the fairy-tale musical has all the ingredients of a Disney Channel Original Movie hit: Splashy song-and-dance numbers, a fresh-faced cast and High School director Kenny Ortega in his channel return. That mentorship would prime Ortega for his work on such films as “Dirty Dancing” and the “High School Musical” TV franchise. “Gene would show me films and share with me how he made (directorial) choices and why the camera cut there, and why he selected a high angle or a master (shot),” Ortega says. “All of those things were a big part of my learning the craft. And while there are obviously thick strands from Disney’s animated classics woven into the story, the borrowing goes beyond that, including a bit of Harry Potter, including a game that looks like a hybrid of Lacrosse and Quidditch.

Signing on, “I felt a great sense of responsibility — these are major Disney heritage characters, those aren’t just given to anyone,” Ortega says. “Now that it’s done, people are like, ‘Do you think you’ll do another?’ or ‘Will it branch out and have all these other lives?’ I can only say I hope so. Written by Josie McGibbon and Sara Parriott, and directed and co-choreographed by Kenny Ortega, the movie boasts a stronger, more assured story than most of the recent youth-oriented live-action musicals Disney has offered, with plenty of brightly colored bells and whistles as well as songs that range from Broadway to rap.

About the only cautionary note is a climactic sequence that might be scary for some young kids, given the difference between CGI creations and full-blown animation. We were very lucky with that with ‘High School Musical.’ ” “Neither Kenny nor I would ever look at the dancing in ‘Descendants’ as just a dance number; we would look at it like a scene,” he says. “We had the love story, the connections — all those moments were just as important as the choreography. Fortunately, parents who might have been tempted to seek shelter elsewhere from these exercises in the past will be compensated, principally, by Chenoweth, who clearly embraces the opportunity to cut loose with her “wicked” side.

That franchise, starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, set channel records with the premiere of its 2007 sequel (17.2 million viewers) and had one of the best-selling albums that year. While such brand extensions always require care, Disney has been adept at wringing additional mileage from its old fairly tales and movies, including preschool titles like “Sofia the First” and “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.” And while there’s always the risk of sullying storied franchises with such offshoots, in the case of “Descendants,” at least, the studio proves they can do some good without being bad. Executive producers, Kenny Ortega, Wendy Japhet; producer, Tracey Jeffrey; director, Ortega; writers, Josie McGibbon, Sara Parriott; camera, Tom Burstyn; production designer, Mark Hofeling; editor, Don Brochu; music, David Lawrence; choreographers, Ortega, Paul Becker; costume designer, Kara Saun; casting, Jason Lapadura, Natalie Hart, Corinne Clark, Jennifer Page. 112 MIN.

Dove Cameron, Cameron Boyce, Booboo Stewart, Sofia Carson, Mitchell Hope, Melanie Paxson, Brenna D’Amico, Sarah Jeffery, Zachary Gibson, Jedidiah Goodacre, Dianne Doan, Kristin Chenoweth, Wendy Raqel Robinson, Maz Jobrani, Kathy Najimy After landing her first acting gig last year in a guest role on Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally, she was cast as the Evil Queen’s blue-haired daughter, Evie. (She will also star in the network’s 100th original movie, Adventures in Babysitting, an adaptation of the 1987 Elisabeth Shue comedy premiering next year). Starting out, “Disney is all that I’ve really known,” Carson says. “I would love to do more with the channel.” Now working on her debut album, she hopes to follow similar career trajectories to former Disney stars Selena Gomez and Lovato. “They both managed to have acting and music careers, which I’d love to do.

Music was my first love, so I’m really thankful that acting opens doors to (that) world for me.” Her songs will undoubtedly get a boost from the network, as part of its well-oiled cross-pollination machinery, dating back to Hillary Duff, Miley Cyrus and the Jonases. The category’s 2013 sales were second only to the company’s Mickey Mouse and friends characters, according to Licensing Letter, a trade publication. It’s all part of a strategy to promote in-house talent, says Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide. “We tend to cast talent from our current series, so that’s an opportunity for us to broaden the familiarity and appeal of our current stars,” Marsh says. Descendants, for example, stars Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie) and Cameron Boyce (Disney XD’s Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything), with Radio Disney’s “Next Big Thing” artist Shawn Mendes featured on the soundtrack. Universal, part of Comcast Corp., is putting out “The Huntsman,” a sequel to its 2012 hit “Snow White and the Huntsman,” next April. “Descendants” toys will be appearing on shelves alongside products built around Disney’s May theatrical release “Tomorrowland.” That film, starring George Clooney, flopped at the box office and may lose as much $131 million, according to an SNL Kagan estimate. “Everything they touch doesn’t always work,” Glenn Demby, editor of the letter, said of Disney’s licensing.

Although Disney Channel usually produces three to four movies a year, Descendants is the only one with a recognizable link to its parent company’s existing characters, Marsh says, with plans for inevitable merchandise tie-ins. It also continues Disney’s penchant for spinoffs from its animated catalog, with live-action theatrical remakes of Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book scheduled for release in the next two years, with many more in development. But could this built-in brand recognition help take Descendants to High School Musical-level heights? “It’s possible that it’ll happen,” says Gregg Witt, chief engagement officer at Immersive Youth Marketing, who calls it “an example of relentless experimentation. If Descendants is executed well, it’s going to have huge potential, in the way that they’re going to grab every age demographic and there’s going to be interest in every one of these characters.” While the network certainly hopes Descendants has legs, building a movie franchise wasn’t the goal.

Instead, it was to put a fresh spin on the Disney classics, incorporating different musical styles, modern gadgets and social media. “It doesn’t really start with, ‘If we have this, this and this, we can build a franchise.’ It’s a sure path to mediocrity if you start to reverse-engineer these things,” Marsh says. “I tell the team, ‘Make the best movie you can.

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