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Descendants DVD Review

Disney's Descendants DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Descendants
Movie & DVD Details

Director: Kenny Ortega / Writers: Josann McGibbon, Sara Parriott

Cast: Dove Cameron (Mal), Cameron Boyce (Carlos), Booboo Stewart (Jay), Sofia Carson (Evie), Mitchell Hope (Ben), Melanie Paxson (Fairy Godmother), Brenna D'Amico (Jane), Sarah Jeffery (Audrey), Zachary Gibson (Doug), Jedidah Goodacre (Chad Charming), Dianne Doan (Lonnie), Dan Payne (Beast), Keegan Connor Tracy (Belle), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Cruella De Vil), Maz Jobrani (Jafar), Kathy Najimy (Evil Queen), Kristin Chenoweth (Maleficent)

Original Air Date: July 31, 2015 / Running Time: 112 Minutes / Rating: TV-G

Songs: "Rotten to the Core", "Evil Like Me", "Did I Mention", "If Only", "Be Our Guest", "If Only (Reprise"), "Set It Off", "Believe"

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (Hi-Def Broadcast Ratio)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled and Captioned
DVD Release Date: July 31, 2015 / Suggested Retail Price: $26.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Black Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

Buy Descendants from Amazon.com: DVD Instant Video

Not to be confused with the Oscar-winning George Clooney Hawaiian dramedy, Disney Channel's Descendants is like a tween-oriented version of ABC's "Once Upon a Time."
In this new original movie, the human heroes and villains of Disney's animated classics all share a world. Around twenty years ago, this world was rigidly divided. Villains were booted out of the United States of Auradon by Belle and the Beast and sent to live on the Isle of the Lost, where there is "no magic, no Wi-Fi, and no way out."

In his first official proclamation, Ben (Mitchell Hope), the teenaged son of Belle and Beast, decides that the children of the villains should not be penalized for their parents' misdeeds. Thus, Auradon is reopened to the descendants of evildoers, four of whom are focal to us: Mal (Dove Cameron), the purple-haired daughter of Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent; Carlos (Cameron Boyce), the dog-fearing, platinum blonde son of 101 Dalmatians' Cruella De Vil; Jay (Booboo Stewart), the hunky, long-haired son of Aladdin's Jafar; and Evie (Sofia Carson), the blue-haired daughter of the Wicked Queen who poisoned Snow White.

These four punky teenagers -- who reveal they've inherited some of their parents' malice in "Rotten to the Core", the first of a few original songs -- enroll at Auradon Prep, where Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth; Angelina Jolie must have been busy) wants her daughter and her friends to steal the wand of headmistress Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson) and bring it back to the Isle.

In Disney Channel's "Descendants", the offspring of banished Disney villains -- Jay (Booboo Stewart), Mal (Dove Cameron), Carlos (Cameron Boyce), and Evie (Sofia Carson) -- are permitted to attend Auradon Prep with the children of heroes and heroines.

Descendants feels like fan fiction brought to life. It looks like something teenaged girls would make for a Filmmaking 101 class, not an official Disney production. The Walt Disney Company was valued at $74.9 billion three years ago, but you'd never know it by watching this movie with its non-existent production values. Our lead characters look like they are DisneyBounding with a Steampunk flavor. The few visual effects the story demands are atrociously rendered. The CGI sets (because green screen studios are cheaper than finding and lighting locations) are even worse.

Disney had to know this project would draw interest, based purely on the giant fanbase for their oft-revisited best-loved classics. Indeed, 6.55 million viewers tuned in for Friday, July 31's premiere and that number soared to 10.54 million when counting DVR viewing over the next three days. I don't know how you calculate the worth of those over 21 million eyeballs on Disney Channel, whose only commercials promote their other programming and movies. But between the sales of the movie's concurrent DVD release and at least 32 other pieces of merchandise available at Disney Store, you have to think the company could have sunk a little more money into this.

They also could have poured a lot more creativity, wit, and heart into this project, instead of just giving their core audience what they think they want: over-the-top acting, ceaseless manipulative score, the most hackneyed version of high school imaginable, and a tinny sense of humor. Descendants should have taken a page from Enchanted, the predominantly live-action 2007 musical comedy that used original characters to celebrate -- and poke gentle fun at -- Disney's fairy tale tradition. It assumed and rewarded knowledge of the classics. This one, unwilling to assume an 11-year-old has seen any of the company's evergreen titles, opts to keep telling and reminding us who every character's parents are, something you might otherwise only gather from their color schemes.

Jafar (Maz Jobrani), the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy), Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth), and Cruella De Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson) use video chat to communicate with their children from the Isle of the Lost.

Cinderella and Prince Charming's son is a vapid himbo who asks Evie to do his homework for him. Dopey's son has not inherited his muteness, but does often wear at least a touch of green. To keep boys interested, there's also a grounded version of Quidditch that Jay, Carlos, and Ben get to play.

To bridge the gap between the Europe-derived, historically Caucasian animation tradition and Disney Channel's calculated diversity, casting is color-blind so that the movie can feature offspring of more popular characters than the likes of The Princess and the Frog's Tiana.

The movie does raise one large unanswered question: with whom are all these characters procreating? There is nary a glimpse nor a mention of the men that Maleficent, Cruella (Wendy Raquel Robinson), and the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy) have won over. Presumably, Disney villains are like Gremlins, popping out new ones when they get wet.

Ben (Mitchell Hope) and Mal (Dove Cameron) are like the new Troy and Gabriella or something.

Though not really a full-fledged musical, Descendants does feature a number of original songs plus one cringe-worthy new take on Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's "Be Our Guest." With their lip-synched vocals Auto-Tuned beyond human recognition,
the numbers have virtually no artistic value, especially not the one that plays like a pop music mid-film. But hey, I'm sure the digital album is topping charts on iTunes.

Surprisingly, Descendants was not conceived by a couple of thirteen-year-old daughters of Disney executives but Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, the veteran writing duo behind Three Men and a Little Lady, Runaway Bride, the USA miniseries The Starter Wife and its short-lived series spin-off. If we can assume the pair's creative peak came on Runaway Bride (the 1999 Julia Roberts/Richard Gere reunion romcom on which they were the only credited writers), then this movie might not be seen as part of a downward spiral but perhaps a career rebirth. Having shown they can write for young audiences, these two scribes with 56 years of experience between them have just qualified themselves for the abundance of menial writing jobs available at Disney Channel.

Inevitably, the movie is directed by Kenny Ortega, who similarly reinvented himself as a Disney Channel guy on the High School Musical trilogy long after helming the cult classic theatrical films Newsies and Hocus Pocus for the Mouse, work that itself came after commanding industry-wide respect for his choreography on films like Dirty Dancing, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Any of the good qualities that Ortega showed on his curiously unfollowed early '90s theatrical efforts have long faded; he's now content to just supply more of the crass, campy theatre that made High School Musical such a popular and lucrative property.

Needless to say, after Descendants debuted to such high ratings, Disney is already planning a sequel, something foretold in the movie's closing shots. If Disney is wise, they will fast-track the follow-up to premiere next summer la HSM2 instead of waiting two years as they did on Camp Rock. Disney Channel's target demographic is so narrow that the longer you wait, the better chance they'll age out of such foolishness. In the meantime, the franchise will extend to a line of animated shorts beginning this fall.

VIDEO and AUDIO

The DVD's picture quality is a bit worse than it should be, with the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation lacking much detail and sharpness. The absence of a Blu-ray edition is disheartening and it's tough to believe such a release of something this popular would lose Disney money. Maybe it's just a way to sell the movie twice, once now and again in a sing-along edition before the sequel. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is adequate, presenting the non-stop flow of music and dialogue evenly and well.

Descendants use social media in the bonus short "#Mal." Girls practice their moves in "Backstage Dance Rehearsals."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The DVD's bonus features begin with "#Mal" (4:30), a short video animating social media interactions (complete with textspeak) of the Descendants from Mal's point of view. It's kind of creative and kind of heart-breaking at the same time. If you weren't sure whether or not you were in the target audience of the movie, your reaction to this may let you know.

"Backstage Dance Rehearsals" (7:31) lives up to its title with behind-the-scenes looks and the Australian accent Mitchell Hope struggles to hide throughout the movie on full display. Hilarious opening Kenny Ortega sound bite: "I've worked on huge movies -- Newsies, Hocus Pocus, High School Musicals -- but I have to say Descendants was the most special moment of my career."

Booboo Stewart has a laugh after throwing Cameron Boyce to the ground in the bloopers reel. We get a very brief look at "Descendants: Wicked World", Disney Channel's upcoming spin-off line of computer-animated shorts.

The obligatory bloopers reel (2:16) is short and not terribly amusing.

It offers some goofs, some tomfoolery, and a glimpse at deleted bits.

The extras conclude with a very brief, 19-second sneak peek of "Descendants: Wicked World", a series of CG-animated shorts that will come to Disney Channel beginning in the fall.

The disc opens with a Disney Movies Anywhere promo followed by trailers for Disneynature's Born in China and Aladdin: Diamond Edition. The Sneak Peeks listing plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards, "K.C. Undercover", and "Girl Meets World" before repeating the disc-opening spots.

Finally, inside the black keepcase, which is topped by an embossed slipcover, alongside the boring gray disc and standard Disney Movie Rewards and Disney Movie Club inserts, we get a tangible bonus. It is an Isle of the Lost bracelet featuring a charm to represent each of our four lead characters: a heart made of two dragons for Mal, a cracked crown for Evie, a snake for Jay, and, for some reason, crossbones for Carlos. As far as in-case freebies go, this is a high quality inclusion, should you be of the age and gender to pull it off.

Enhanced with Disney's FastPlay, the DVD's animated main menu offers a three-dimensional raised topographic map of the United States of Auradon based on the movie's opening. The static submenus each place a character against a backdrop while an excerpt of score is looped.

Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth) gives her daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) a mission to carry out over at Auradon Prep.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

There is certainly enough allure to their animated classics canon for Disney to do fun, creative things with it, like "House of Mouse" and, I guess, "Once Upon a Time." Unfortunately, Descendants just exploits the rich tradition and its characters to make another cheesy, soulless movie for tweens in the vein of High School Musical. Obviously, I am way out of the target audience and perhaps 2010's kids will one day get nostalgic for this the way that '80s kids geek out about Mr. Boogedy. But Disney definitely missed a chance to make some great all-ages entertainment, showing little respect for the source material to churn out just another cheap, mindless, sugary piece of entertainment that is strictly for the 14-and-under sect.

With a handful of forgettable extras and a feature presentation far from high definition, this DVD-only release underwhelms, but might well be supplanted by a better edition down the line.

Buy Descendants from Amazon.com: DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Enchanted Maleficent Vampire Academy
Directed by Kenny Ortega: Hocus Pocus Newsies High School Musical High School Musical 2 High School Musical 3: Senior Year
From Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott: Chicken Little
101 Dalmatians Beauty and the Beast Aladdin Princess Protection Program StarStruck Into the Woods

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Reviewed August 9, 2015.



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