Friday, August 28, 2015

Short Take: "Disney's Descendants" (TV Movie, 2015)

I'm working on a snappier name for a subgenre of films that can best be described as "cinematically illiterate but nevertheless entertaining." Camp classic is probably the best term, but not every film can be Miami Connection or The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the latter of which is actually competently made, by the way). You can't consciously make a camp classic; just ask the makers of Snakes on a Plane or Machete. You have to believe you're making something truly great, and failing so miserably that the badness is what makes it entertaining. This isn't the same thing as a "great bad movie," either, though. It's something in-between: something that could earn midnight screenings in the future, but isn't truly remarkable in its own right.

I've been thinking about this distinction mostly because of Disney Channel's latest original movie, Descendants. Not to be confused with Alexander Payne's George Clooney-starring Oscar-winning film, this film opens in a magical world where Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and the Beast (Dan Payne) got married and banished all of the world's villains to a single island, where they're imprisoned by a magic barrier. The prince, Ben (Mitchell Hope), is about to become king, and decrees that four children from the Isle of the Lost be permitted to attend high school within the kingdom, giving them a chance to be good rather than evil. Those children are Mal (Dove Cameron), the daughter of Maleficent (Kristen Chenoweth); Evie (Sofia Carson), the daughter of the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy); Carlos (Cameron Boyce), the son of Cruella De Vil (Wendy Raquel Robinson); and Jay (Booboo Stewart), the son of Jafar (Maz Jobrani). Maleficent encourages the children to steal the Fairy Godmother's (Melanie Paxson) wand and set them all free, but each kid finds that task more difficult the more they find themselves fitting in in their idyllic new home.

This is the kind of film that opens with an atrocious, grating dubstep number (because that's what the kids are into, and listen to how gritty it is!), peaks with a peppy love song "Did I Mention," which was actually written by Fountains of Wayne bassist/songwriter Adam Schlesinger and lives up to its repeated refrain of "ridiculous," and, for whatever reason, includes a god-awful, unnecessary electronic remix of "Be Our Guest." It's a film that questionably plays with uncomfortable racial stereotypes (the sassy black woman, the thieving Arab). It's a film that tries so hard to be cool and trendy and exciting and is still overwhelmingly sincere. It's yet another example of Disney plundering its own vault and throwing disparate characters together because the company's policy is to basically write its own fan fiction at this point (see also: Once Upon a Time).

And yet, somehow, the whole thing ends up being entertaining - at least in the moment. Director Kenny Ortega doesn't always seem to know what he's doing visually, but once the music starts he stages memorable dance sequences (belying his reputation as a choreographer first, director distant second). And a few of the performances, from Cameron's genuine charisma to Chenoweth and Najimy hamming it up, are great fun. There's no denying that the whole thing is bad; fun or not, this film is a trainwreck. But at least it's an enjoyable one. C

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