There are so many films which cross your path in a lifetime that it becomes a gamble deciphering the good from the bad. This is why we apply subjective filters when making our selections. The upside is that it helps reduce how much decision-making energy we spend selecting entertainment. The downside is that we end up skipping out on things that actually manage to tickle, amuse, and delight. For instance, if you told me that the third film in a series of which I have no connection to and which focuses on the children of Disney’s villains trying to get a fresh start, singing and dancing included, would be a highlight film, there would be no question to my level of surprise. That’s right, Descendants 3, the culminating film in a series begun in 2015, is surprisingly charming in its low-threat good vs. evil storytelling and is incredibly accessible whether you’re a longtime fan or are just jumping in. It certainly helps that the cast is immensely talented, able to make the obvious Disney cheese appear grounded and authentic.
After the events of 2017’s Descendants 2, Mal (Dove Cameron), Evie (Sofia Carson), Carlos (Cameron Boyce), and Jay (Booboo Stewart) are finally comfortable with their new lives in Auradon. So much so that Mal and boyfriend Prince Ben (Mitchell Hope) extend the program that brought Mal and her fellow Villain Kids (VKs) to Auradon Prep to four new kids living on the Isle of the Lost, locked away with the rest of the villains who used to plague the land. There’s one problem: Princess Audrey’s (Sarah Jeffery) frustrated at having lost her position at Ben’s side and the increase of VKs sends her over the edge, turning into a villain herself. Caught between the VKs she wants to bring to Auradon and stopping Audrey from going full-tilt evil, Mal and her friends will need to mend every fence they’ve broken in order to win the day.
If you’re not familiar with the Descendants films (or shorts or animated series), here’s the quick 411 to get yourself oriented. Mal is the daughter of Maleficent, Evie is the daughter of The Evil Queen from Sleeping Beauty, Carlos is the son of Cruella de Vil, Jay is the son of Jafar, Prince Ben is the son of Belle and Beast, and Audrey is the daughter of Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip. Additionally, Captain Hook’s son Harry (Thomas Doherty), Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain), Gaston’s son Gil (Dylan Playfair), and more are present. Basically, if you were ever a Disney villain or hero, your next of kin is likely represented. All considered, it’s a great way to reintroduce characters to a new generation of fans while also providing something for older audiences to latch onto.
Rather than telling the same stories of good vs. evil, the Descendants series addresses the complex issue of sins passing down from generation to generation. The first film challenges the original four VKs to be more than what they think they are and the third circles back around to this idea through Audrey’s corruption via jealousy. This introduces a grey area of how to deal with someone who does harm to the people of Auradon. In the old days of storytelling, turning evil would land you in the Isle of the Lost. But what happens if you’ve never done evil before? Does that equate to a one-way ticket? If so, what does that mean for the children who’ve grown up on the Isle? Descendants 3 is a Disney story, so it’ll have a happy ending, but the way it gets there is more bold and heady than you’d expect. The script written by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, both of whom wrote the previous two films, smartly introduces these notions in song, but doesn’t leave them there. Rather, there are several conversations between heroes and villains alike to discuss the evolution of ideas. Additionally, for the uninitiated, McGibbon and Parriott make sure to rehash storylines and old grievances where they might naturally arise so that anyone jumping in is caught up, as well as providing a natural refresher for returning viewers. Doing so makes Descendants 3 far more accessible than most films this deep into their storytelling.
In terms of spectacle, Descendants 3 balances the tonal expectations which come with any Disney Channel production with a Broadway show. There’s singing, dancing, and quite a bit of magic, the best of which comes around the middle as the original VKs, with some help from Uma, Harry, and Gil, take on several enchanted suits of armor with the pop song “Night Falls.” The lyrics allow the characters to vocalize some of their grievances, the chorography highlights their skills, and the magic adds just the right amount of silly. Sequences like this one move the story forward without feeling like a break in the action. Other sequences, like the one at the end with “Break This Down,” take on the feel of a classic Disney production like Mary Poppins, eschewing the standard set for something more akin to a Broadway stage. This adds a sense of grandeur to the sequence as everyone moves in rhythm, signaling the unity of Auradon as much as celebrating the end of the story. Considering returning director Kenny Ortega’s experience includes the 2009 Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, 2016’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again which aired on Fox, three of the High School Musical films, and, of course, Hocus Pocus, there’s really no surprise that something as obvious as “Disney Villains: the Next Generation” ends up being something he is able to get you invested in.
Another unexpected treat is the talent on display in the cast, many of whom have worked for the Disney channel in one way or another, and most of whom possess a deep resume of work in film and television. This greatly benefits how they are received in their performances, which never come off as playing or pretending; instead, they always seem committed to their roles, making even the strange seem commonplace. Though the majority of the film is centered on Cameron’s Mal, none of the central cast of characters feel secondary in any way. Even when one brings something joyful (as in the case of Stewart’s Jay or Playfair’s Gil) or serious (as with McClain’s Uma or Jeffrey’s Audrey), the characters and their performances feel balanced and in-tune with the others. None stand out more than the others, much like an strong ensemble production, however, it’s worth noting the specter of sadness which hangs over the film. Fans of the Descendants series were struck a blow on July 6th, 2019, when Cameron Boyce passed away due to a seizure from epilepsy. Though the DVD makes no mention, reportedly the premiere on the Disney Channel made sure to acknowledge the loss to Boyce’s family, the cast and crew, as well as fans of the series.
Having not seen the previous two installments, it’s hard to say with any certainty whether Descendants 3 is a conclusive ending to the series, but it does feel like one. Multiple narrative threads have been addressed, the land of Auradon is filled with hope, and without Boyce’s Carlos, I suspect any future films may not feel the same. Better to end things in hope, allow the fairytales to take on the endless possibilities in our minds than to come back for another adventure. Instead, to consider the adventures of Mal and her crew complete, the Descendants series closes out in joyous celebration of the realization that we all deserve second chances and our parents choices don’t define who we are as people. Whatever people might think of the Descendants films, that’s a particularly poignant message in our conflict-filled times, inspiring hope amid song and dance.
DVD Bonus Features
- Blooper Reel
- Deleted Scenes
- Under the Sea: A Descendants Short Story
Descendants 3 premiered on August 2nd, 2019 on the Disney Channel.
Available on DVD and digital August 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.