No matter what you think of Walt Disney Corp., you’ve got to admit that they offer a wide range of entertainment for all ages. Sometimes it’s a mega-hit like Hannah Montana and sometimes it’s a mega-bomb like Artemis Fowl, But at least they are trying. Since releasing their streaming service Disney+, they’ve continued the trend of experimentation with their talk show Earth To Ned, the PVOD release of Mulan, and now the YA science-fiction adventure Secret Society of Second-Born Royals, dropping on September 25th. Written by Alex Litvak (Predators) and Andrew Green (Hannah Montana) from a story co-developed with Austin Winsberg (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), Secret Society is a bubble gum-covered punk song, sweet enough to appeal to everyone yet lacking a distinctive rule-breaking charm. The end result is entertaining, even if totally forgettable.
In the small European country of Illyria, second-born princess Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) prefers to spend her time rocking with her best friend Mike (Noah Lomax) than engaging in any of the affairs of state, much to the chagrin of her mother, Queen Catherine (Elodie Yung), and sister, heir to the throne Princess Eleanor (Ashley Liao). After a recent act of rebellion lands her in jail, Catherine decides it’s time to send Sam to summer school with a few of her peers to whip her into shape. Imagine Sam’s surprise to learn that not only is summer school not merely higher ed rehabilitation, but that it’s a secret training facility for children like Sam: the second-born royalty from families across the globe who possess special abilities, abilities which have allowed the Secret Society of Second-Born Royalty to protect their respective countries and the rest of the world for generations. With a new threat hiding in the shadows, it’s not a question of if Sam is worthy of the SSSBR, but whether she can realize she is in time.
The premise of Secret Society is a strange amalgamation of other Disney properties Sky High (2005) and Descendants, their TV movie series, with a dash of Fox’s X-Men: First Class (2011). This should equate to a good time as each offers something unique on the superhero/supervillain tales that have become increasingly popular over the last decade. In the specific case of Secret Society, you’ve got the rebellious, musically-inclined central character (Descendants) who learns that she attends a school for supers to develop her powers (Sky High) and, in embracing them, learns a valuable life lesson about teamwork (First Class). With these pieces in place, why is Secret Society merely whelming? It’s largely a mixture of strange narrative structure and odd editing that eventually undercuts any of the engaging performances or themes. For instance, Sam gets an exclusive tour of the SSSBR facilities which implies that there is a large force working under those with abilities. It’s a moment where the veil is truly ripped off for Sam, highlighting just how large of an organization she’s being introduced to and how significant her role as a royal is (a core aspect of struggle for the character). Except, when the climactic battle is underway, where is everyone? It makes sense within the scope of the larger narrative that Sam and her fellow second-borns will take center stage in order for the narrative to reach its desired conclusion, but there are zero attempts in *any way* to explain where all of the other agents have gone. Not a single explanation for why this once large force is unable to join in the final battle. Even though director Anna Mastro (Runaways) knows how to stage an action sequence that’s enjoyable to behold, the fact that the narrative goes out of its way to ignore what should be explained while spending *too* much time explaining what is easily predicted from the start is frustrating. This doesn’t even get me started on the logical fallacies present in the execution of getting the main villain worked into the story. So much of it crumbles under even the slightest press of thought that it becomes frustrating. Ultimately, many of the issues within Secret Society can be explained by the audience the film is clearly aiming for: one less interested in high art and is more focused on casual entertainment.
There is nothing wrong with casual entertainment as sometimes just simply being distracted for 97 minutes is a delight unto itself. In this regard, Secret Society is enjoyable, if only for the time you’ve spent not thinking about the world at large or about any of your other responsibilities. (Which is strange given how much of Secret Society is focused on Sam’s personal journey of personal and interpersonal responsibility. But anyway …) It would be forgivable if the narrative’s selective memory was perhaps the only issue, but then there’re some strange editing choices that undercut a great deal of the engagement. For instance, Sam’s journey of self-discovery is intended to play against that of the villain played by Greg Bryk (My Spy), who shares a similar ideology on a more drastic level. The cut from Sam to introduce Bryk is so unrelated that it induces whiplash. This continues to happen up until their first meeting as a means of ensuring the audience doesn’t forget about Bryk’s bad guy looming in the distance, but his scenes don’t flow into or out of whatever they’re smooshed between. Essentially, Bryk, who is truly doing his level best as a scenery-eating bad guy, is just a presence to be forced into Secret Society because the film needed a villain but wasn’t ready for said villain to be integrated naturally.
Thankfully, Secret Society isn’t all pain and anguish as the performances from the cast are certainly likeable and often endearing. Lee is more than capable of taking the lead, demonstrating a reasonable resilience and weakness that comes from learning your entire life is suddenly upside down. With so much of Secret Society dependent on feeling real to the audience, Lee’s performance is a grounding wire which makes any weirdness digestible. As scene-partners and SSSBR teammates, there’s a veritable modern day Breakfast Club in attendance in the form of Niles Fitch’s popular kid Tuma, Olivia Deeble’s insta-influencer Roxana, Faly Rakotohavana’s socially awkward Matteo, and Isabella Blake-Thomas’s eternal optimist January. The chemistry among the cast makes the relative ease with which the story breaks down their barriers to become friends easier to accept. In fact, I’d be lying if I said the brief montage of them hanging out on a day off wasn’t at all endearing. With so much focus on the new recruits, Yung is given less to do, so the bulk of the “adult” role comes from Pitch Perfect/Zoey’s Extrodinary Playlist alum Skylar Austin who eats up the screen as Professor James Morrow, the teacher for new SSSBR recruits and narrator of the film. It’s a performance straight out of Pitch Perfect 1, just with super powers, making any scene he’s in amusing as hell. The character, though, will likely catch flack because his sexual orientation is handled about as well as Officer Spector’s (voiced by Lena Waithe) in 2020’s Onward. It’s unnecessary to the plot so the inclusion is more virtue signaling than anything meaningful.
When you pump out as much content as Disney, not all of them are going to be franchise starters like Frozen, and they don’t need to be. With so many audience members rushing to stan, it’s easy to forget that there’s nothing wrong with a film being “just ok,” and that’s what Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is: it’s fine. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing what Sam and the other Second-Borns are up to, it’s that I’m not going to plan a weekend around its release. So, if you’re in the mood for some sugar cane rebellion, why not hit up Secret Society? At least it’s safer than going to the theater.
Available for streaming on Disney+ September 25th, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.