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Movie Review

The Bible tells us to honor our father and mother. But what if they're kind of the pits?

I'm not talking about imperfect or even exasperating mothers and fathers who might set bedtimes too early, or allow their kids to eat dessert before dinner or (gasp) watch inappropriate television shows. We're talking honest-to-goodness, super-villainous villains, here—moms and pops who might decide to poison an apple or capture little puppy dogs and turn them into coats. That's right, people—we're talking Disney levels of bad parenting. And as any nearby princess will tell you, that can be pretty bad.

Thankfully, most of the land of Aurodon has been protected from Disney's most dastardly villains for a while now. Several years ago, ruling couple Belle and Beast (of Beauty and the Beast fame) shunted out all of the region's bad 'uns to their own, isolated island. But while that saved most from their villainy, it didn't help the villains' kids one little whit. These nefarious knee-biters spent their entire childhoods living in a place that, by definition, is completely populated by bad influences—and the worst are in their very own homes.

They're shaping up accordingly. Jafar's little boy, Jay, has turned into a handsome young thief. Cruela De Vil's lad, Carlos, is a bold ruffian, too—albeit one with a serious fear of dogs. Snow White's evil queen is obsessed with the raising the fairest (and evilest) of them all. "No laughing!" she tells her daughter, Evie. "Wrinkles!"

But Maleficent—self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil—is the worst of the bunch, the Josef Stalin in the island's politburo of putrescence. She's been working for years to fly the coop, return to the mainland and institute another golden age of evil. And she's raised her daughter, Mal, to appreciate the finer subtleties of spite.

Alas, the island doesn't really present much opportunity for the family evil to take root and grow. There just aren't enough innocents to oppress. But now, Maleficent senses an opportunity.

Ben, the 16-year-old son of Beast and Belle, has opened a wee little loophole between the island and the mainland: He wants to bring a handful of the evil island's quarantined kids to Aurodon. "[The villains'] children are innocent!" he tells his parents. "Don't you think their children deserve a shot at a normal life?"

So in the time it takes to call a bunch of woodland creatures to help you with your housework, Mal, Carlos, Jay and Evie are whisked from the island's iniquitous alleyways and into a brighter, greener and literally better world. A whole new world, you might say.

But before this quartet of kids leaves the island, their parents give them some malicious marching orders: Steal a magic wand from the Fairy Godmother. Open a hole in the magical barrier that'll allow their pernicious parents back into Aurodon. And then stand back and watch the supercharged evil return.

Bibbity. Bobbity. Bad.

Positive Elements

It's not easy to reform a bunch of kids raised by definitively evil parents, but the Fairy Godmother (who also serves as headmistress of Aurodon's most prestigious prep school) gives it her best shot.

"If someone hands you a crying baby," she asks in Remedial Goodness 101, "do you, A) curse it, B) lock it in a tower, C) give it a bottle, or D) carve out its heart?" Mal surmises "C": "I just picked the one that doesn't sound like any fun," she says.

Despite the myriad bad lessons in wickedness these kids have been given from birth, there's still some goodness inside trying to get out. Evie discovers that despite her mother's emphasis on looks, she's actually pretty smart, too. Jay learns that he'd much rather be part of the school's sports teams than just steal stuff. Carlos forms an unbreakable bond with the school's resident mutt, Dude. And Mal—well, she discovers that love and affection and goodness are actually kinda cool.

Still, it's not easy to break those familiar familial foibles. The struggle between good and evil is particularly pronounced in Mal—and for not a wholly awful reason. See, she really wants to earn her mother's approval—generally a worthy goal, I'd say. Descendants confirms just how tight the bond is between parents and children, and the desire for the latter to do right by the former is curiously heartening, even in this context.

Obviously, the positivity in trying to please a bad-to-the-bone materfamilias goes only so far. Thankfully, Descendants also emphasizes the importance of the choices we make—choices that don't automatically have to be beholden to the past. "We're not automatically like them," Ben tells Mal. "We get to choose who we get to be." And that is true, both for our villainous progeny here and for us, too. Our choices, not our upbringing or environment, still play a significant role in shaping who we are and who we will become.

The Fairy Godmother's insecure daughter goes to the school, too, and she's constantly frustrated by her mother's refusal to use magic to turn her into a real beauty. But Ms. Godmother responds, "Work on the inside, not on the outside."

Spiritual Content

Descendants takes place in a fairy-tale world, and magic is inherently a part of it. Maleficent's whole plan, after all, is to pair the power of her staff with the potency of Fairy Godmother's magic wand to unleash untold villainy.

But the movie makes an interesting choice here, depicting magic primarily as a tool of evildoers and a conduit for evil deeds. Even Fairy Godmother—she of said magic wand—keeps the wand in a museum and doesn't bother with the bibbity-bobbity-bunk anymore. "She believes the real magic is in the books," her daughter explains. "And not the spell books. Regular books with history and stuff."

The villains' kids do use magic, complete with spells and recipes and incantations; but their conjurations come with a moral attached. For instance, Evie uses a magic pocket mirror to cheat in chemistry. But when the mirror is confiscated, she discovers that she actually likes chemistry, and she finds much more satisfaction in her accomplishments when she leaves the mirror behind. Meanwhile, Mal and her cohorts brew up a love potion/chocolate chip cookie recipe to charm someone critical to their plans. But Mal discovers that the potion wasn't necessary to make someone truly love her after all. Magic may be real in this fictional land, the movie suggests, but it's a poor substitute for the truer, more tangible things in life.

Mal casts spells from a spell book, mostly to redo her schoolmates' hairstyles. A coronation ceremony takes place in what appears to be a church, but the building's lone stained glass window features Belle and Beast dancing. Someone turns into a dragon and a lizard. A spinning wheel needle causes someone to fall asleep.

Sexual Content

Ben and Mal become an item. He takes her on a date by a beautiful pond, and he invites her to go for a dip. He takes off his shirt, but she (perhaps in part because she doesn't have a bathing suit) demurs. Ben goes for swim himself, wearing a pair of swim trunks. But when he seems to disappear, Mal wades in to save him—nearly drowning herself before Ben comes and carries her to safety.

Later, Mal confesses to Ben that she doesn't know "what love feels like." He replies, "Maybe I can show you." The camera leaves before they kiss.

Ben and Mal never actually pucker up during the movie, though they do dance, hold each other and give each other googly eyes. (Ben intimates in a song that he'd give up his kingdom for "just one kiss" from her.)

Other couples do smooch briefly. Girls also wear short skirts, and a couple rip theirs to reveal a bit more leg. Some dance moves can feel vaguely sensual. Jay flirts with various girls in school. Evie and Chad Charming meet under the bleachers: Evie's angling for a kiss, but Chad just wants Evie to do his homework for him. Someone else asks Evie out.

Violent Content

Jay and his schoolmates play a sport that resembles lacrosse, only with someone shooting massive (and non-lethal) darts when a player is in a so-called "kill zone." Jay's favorite aspect of the game is tackling other participants. During his first foray onto the field of play, he leaves a host of opponents lying on the ground in his wake.

A dragon shows up during a critical ceremony and seemingly imperils many onlookers, but doesn't seem to harm anyone. Jay and Carlos play a vaguely violent video game. Carlos worries that a dog is plotting to "rip out my throat."

Crude or Profane Language

One use of "jeez."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Mal brews up various love-related concoctions that resemble desserts. The Evil Queen seems to be drinking a cherry-red beverage in a wine glass, using a straw.

Other Negative Elements

Mal and her cohorts may not be pure evil, but they're certainly not angels, either. They sing a song early on bragging about how they're "rotten to the core." They prove it repeatedly, knocking over produce, stealing things and generally acting like teenage hooligans while they're still on the island.

Their delinquent antics don't impress Maleficent, however, who's trying to teach Mal the difference between being "mean and truly evil." When Mal hands her a lollipop she snatched from a child, for instance, Maleficent spits on it, sticks it in her armpit and asks one of her henchmen to give it back to the little girl.

And those old habits die hard, even when the villains' descendants get off the island. Jay steals stuff one night (including a laptop), Mal covers her locker in graffiti ("Long live evil," it says), and they all break into a museum to steal a wand.

Some of these scions' classmates aren't exactly paragons of virtue, either. Chad cheats, while some girls make fun of Mal and Evie.

Conclusion

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first.

Descendants is, in a way, about the whole "nature vs. nurture" debate. How much of who you are is dependent on your genes, and how much is shaped by your experience and upbringing? But even though the movie stresses that we can "choose who we want to be," Descendants—perhaps surprisingly—lands on the side of nature.

Obviously, the nurturing our protagonists have received is pretty abysmal: Their parents tried to turn them all into villains. And naturally, those lessons took to some extent.But deep down, the movie tells us, Mal, Evie, Carlos and Jay are good people. "I look into your eyes and I can tell you're not evil," Ben tells Mal.

Now, that's a nice sentiment and all, and one that many of us, often subconsciously, hold. But it's actually antithetical to a true Christian worldview: See, deep down, we're not good people. We're naturally sinful creatures, and we're prone to sin sometimes with the least provocation. We need guidance—good mothers and fathers, friends and especially Jesus—to help take us in a better direction.

This core misunderstanding of humanity's nature explains a lot of what we see in Disney made-for-TV movies (like this one, which aired originally on Disney Channel), where everyone is encouraged to follow their dreams and—here especially—how we should follow our own hearts.

If we were really, really good deep down, our hearts and instincts could indeed be trusted more. But you know what my heart sometimes tells me to do? To selfishly watch football when I should be paying attention to family. To yell when I should be listening. To sin. Our hearts aren't always trustworthy (and they're pretty fickle to boot). Thus the message of Descendants isn't one we can simply accept at face value.

But that's a navigable caveat (and one that's worthy of conversation with younger viewers) for a movie that, otherwise, gets a great deal right. Descendants offers terrific lessons about the power of love, second chances and the acknowledgement that we're all worthy and beautiful … warts and all. (A reflection, Christians would say, of being created in God's image.) And it suggests—rightly, I think—that we can redirect both our nature and nurturing through our own positive choices: In the end, neither our genes nor our environment are fated to have the last word on our character. Our choices as we respond to those influences are what matters most … and they're within our power to change.

The Descendants is no poisoned apple, no spinning wheel of death. It's more like a sprinkle of pixie dust, capable of transporting viewers to a whimsical and, in some ways, edifying new land … as long as you make sure to talk about the surprisingly significant themes this Disney Channel movie stirs up. But if you're not careful with that dust, you might just bump your head.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

NR

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

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

Director

Kenny Ortega ( )

Distributor

Disney

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

July 31, 2015

On Video

August 31, 2017

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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