This article includes spoilers for Disney’s The Descendants.
The story behind the making of Disney’s The Descendants (2015) is itself a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the concept of corporate ip. Spinning off from the success of Monster High, toymaker Mattel–who also at the time manufactured Disney’s Princess fashion dolls–created Ever After High, a series that asked what if fairytales went to high school? It was a concept that perhaps owed something to Disney’s live-action, primetime hit Once Upon a Time, which remixed its classic fairy tale characters into modern life somewhere in Maine. Mattel’s dolls were detailed and luxurious, the cartoon was anime-influenced and splashy, and Ever After High fit the zeitgeist’s glass slipper perfectly.
Like a dark faery uninvited to a Christening, Disney sulked apart from Mattel after their new big hit. Ever After High was a clear challenge to Disney’s dominance over modern fairytales, not to mention a shameless riff on Once Upon a Time, but the House of Mouse couldn’t very well say they owned the source material. (See also: Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.) And so, what couldn’t be done by right would be done by might. Disney yanked its Princesses and Frozen dollmaking licenses back from Mattel and launched their own copycat copycat: The Descendants, beginning with a live-action musical film released in 2015 and an inferior but ubiquitous toy line that had all the marketing power of Disney behind it, not to mention a soundtrack calibrated to burrow into preteen ears like so much Ceti eel. Revenge is a dish best served cold, kids.
And so, The Descendants absolutely crushed Ever After High by using a similar premise and producing similar, if inferior, dolls more cheaply, and while Ever After High isn’t a high watermark for storytelling, The Descendants impresses with how perfunctory the world between its rote pop songs can be. It’s an attitude that sometimes seems to hold its own audience in contempt. From the first movie, which is probably also the best one, The Descendants’ world is knocked together like a first dress rehearsal, just like its successor series Zombies, in which the worst part of being the living dead is permanent Joker cosplay. These series are not made with love or even cold professionalism, but with pressure, pressure to own something that cannot be owned by being biggest and loudest if not first or best. I have no doubt that everyone involved is very talented, but I have even less doubt that everyone involved is extremely rushed.
But I have come to praise The Descendants, not to bury it. As the saying goes, I told you that story to tell you another one, or at least to make another point. At the time of this writing, The Descendants series has three live-action movies, an animated web series, Wicked World, a 2021 Royal Wedding animated feature, manga, and tie-in novels, with plans for a long-awaited fourth film–unfortunately delayed by the tragic death of main cast member Cameron Boyce–finally announced for 2023. It is beloved. And if I don’t love it, that doesn’t matter, because it’s not for me. It’s for my kid, which is another part of the Disney winning recipe, cashing in on brand familiarity with the parents. I had a Maleficent batwing poncho long before I had a child. But the fact that The Descendants is the cynical fruit of Disney’s winning bid for market dominance makes it weird and almost sweet that this thrown-together, throwaway meta fairy tale’s story actually ends up as a class consciousness primer with something of an anti-elite message.
At first, The Descendants seems to be a simple story about outsiders–the so-called Villain Kids or VKs–forced to get along in the happy shiny conformist paradise of Auradon. It’s a sympathetic theme that’s as much John Hughes as it is Tim Burton, The Breakfast Club only everyone is Goth, not just Ally Sheedy, and they all have magical powers or stunning physical abilities. It’s really a can’t-miss scenario for the House of Mouse; these kids are the scions of the most dreadful villains in the Disney vaults, with style, panache, and choreography, so they can be at once winners who are easy to idolize while also being losers bullied just for being who they are, which is…[checks notes]…self-avowed evil villains. Ah.
In the backstory, all of the villains of the Disney universe have somehow been exiled to The Isle of the Lost, a place where magic is suppressed by a big dome, making the villains effectively ordinary. The denizens of the Isle, the villains and their children* and nameless goblin hordes, live impoverished lives, surviving off the literal scraps of the fairytale world of Auradon. Their only TV is royal broadcasts from Auradon’s King Beast or a shopping network where they can buy Auradon’s trash, so that’s properly Orwellian, and the villains have constructed their ragtag society around the conceit that bad is the new good. Bad does not exactly have the best public utilities though, and as much as the villains are presented as uncaring, lazy, and mean, it’s hard to imagine them as full on trash-loving Sesame Street grouches. The TV movies don’t dwell on this squalor, but Melissa de la Cruz’s official novels flesh out exactly how horrible this situation is for the villains in a way that I can’t think Disney powers-that-be really thought through. The people of Auradon are literally feeding their conquered foes moldy leftovers and rotten produce. And the people of the Isle of the Lost seem largely content to make do with what they’re given. I mean, Jafar, who once used sorcery and a keen intellect to mount a coup and become an actual genie, now runs a junk shop and dreams of “a big score.” At a stroke, all the greatest powers of villainy are reduced to home shopping and nagging their children and all the greatest heroes of goodness are condemning their foes to generational poverty and strife. It’s gross.
Then Prince Ben (Mitchell Hope), son of Queen Belle and King Beast, anticipating taking the throne on his eighteenth birthday because, sure, why not, declares he wants to allow the VKs into Auradon. After all, they are being punished for their parents’ crimes. Four kids are chosen on a trial basis–Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron), Evil Queen’s daughter Evie (Sofia Carson), Cruella de Ville’s son Carlos (Cameron Boyce), and Jafar’s son Jay (Booboo Stewart). (One of the many, many signs to me of how little they cared about telling a story as opposed to slapping together an ip like a modular cubicle from a flatpacked box is that Evil Queen from Snow White is only ever known by that name. Evil. Queen. Unless you count Maleficent teasingly calling her “EQ.”) The kids, like their parents, have about one characteristic apiece*–Mal is flint-hearted and in control, Evie is vain and desperate for love, Carlos is clever but fearful, and Jay is a thief and a jock. They are all loyal besties, though they would also deny such a thing exists.
Meanwhile, the VKs are given a mission by their dastardly parents to fetch Maleficent a wand that will allow her to free all the villains, get revenge, etc. Nothing about this plotline is particularly surprising, and even less surprising, the fact that Ben quickly gets heart eyes for Mal, earning the ire of his girlfriend, Aurora’s daughter Audrey (Sarah Jeffrey). (Sleeping Beauty’s daughter versus Maleficent’s–see what they did there?) But then, ain’t nobody watching this to be surprised. All told, the VKs assimilate pretty well, as anyone might if they’re being fed actual food and getting to sleep on actual beds with actual pillows for the first time in their lives. Their main obstacles to happiness lie in either their parents’ expectations or the expectations of the good people of Auradon, some of whom, never having known privation, aren’t very good at all. Of course, Audrey is a manipulative, jealous witch, just like her mother wasn’t. Of course, Chad Charming is a straight-up jerk. And this is also a very familiar story in our Western canon–rich jerks are rich jerks.
This is the basic setup, and I won’t belabor the journey our VKs go through over the films, which continue to build the VK rosters with faces like Ursula’s and Dr. Facilier’s daughters and Captain Hook’s son, but suffice it to say, as the song goes, good is the new bad. Despite coming from an “evil” ethos that just feels like Addams Family values as it were, the VKs are easy to like because it turns out nothing they want is actually all that evil, and it helps that the people of Auradon have hatched a few natural villains that are easy to despise. Extra points go to Sarah Jeffrey’s Audrey, who will be the Big Bad before the third film is over, driven by her jealousy of Mal to possess Maleficent’s Dragon Eye scepter. Her big villainous musical number “Queen of Mean” is probably my favorite of the series–it’s definitely one of the most genuine vocal performances–as Audrey explains “I want what I deserve/I want to rule the world” with a sense of entitlement that King Ben might want to consider dropping a big dome on, too.
Between Mal and her friends eschewing their evil heritage as soon as they’re shown actual trust and kindness and Audrey embracing villainy the instant she’s denied what she believes is hers, The Descendants ends up with a really ironic moral statement for a piece of corporate media that seems, at best, cobbled together by committee to frustrate an opportunistic competitor. It’s not the simple palette swap of good and evil, the clever repositioning of ancient antagonists’ Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty’s children to each renounce her own mother and embrace her rival’s example. It’s not just the idea that there’s honor among thieves and sociopathy among heroes, which you can see in The Boys and The Suicide Squad and pretty much anything in the DC cinematic universe. The really interesting thing that The Descendants almost can’t help itself saying is that evil is the fruit of expectation–the expectation of villainy that keeps the children of the Isle of the Lost trapped in their parents’ abusive shadows and the expectation of honor that makes Audrey and Chad Charming believe they are better and deserve more simply for existing. It’s about, of all things, class conflict, caped in terms of good and evil, but only demonstrated in terms of the comfortable elites versus the hungry and undeserving poor.
As Mal ends up Queen of Auradon, it’s hard to seriously argue that The Descendants outgrows a standard fairy tale fetishization of royalty and the elite. I mean, she’s the Queen. But she’s not the Queen because of blood or a divine right or because she went to the right schools, but because she did the right things for the right reasons. The entire point of the series, apart from crushing Mattel, is that nothing is earned by blood. King Ben is King Ben because of his birthright (and the needs of the paper-thin plot), but he also earns that title through his actions, and so does Mal, when she defends Auradon against her own mother. It’s hard to imagine someone paying attention to the events of The Descendants, its sequels and its tie-in media, and not coming away with the lesson that privilege made the good people of Auradon crueler than poverty ever made the VKs.
* There isn’t any depth with the villain family trees. Every VK has one villain parent, with the exception of Mal, whose father is revealed later in the series. You have to imagine that all of the VKs sprung wholly formed from their parents like Athena from Zeus or Rory Kinnear from Rory Kinnear.
Angela now has “Queen of Mean“ stuck in her head.