No one ever said happily ever after would be a cakewalk.
I mean, you might think that trading one’s wicked ways for a life chockful of virtue, nobility and adoration would be pretty fulfilling. But for Mal—the formerly wicked, now reformed daughter of Maleficent—playing the part of the kingdom of Aurodon’s future queen-in-waiting hasn’t come naturally. She’s swapped her purple locks for blond ones, her edgy leather getups for frilly dresses and her outsider status for perpetual scrutiny as the girlfriend of King Ben (the son of Beauty and Beast).
“Evie, do you ever think about what we’d be doing if we were back on the Isle of the Lost right now?” Mal asks her BFF, Evie, another reformed descendant of a Disney baddie. “You don’t ever miss just running around and breaking all the rules?”
“Like stealing, lying and fighting?” Evie says.
“No,” Evie says. “This is the land of opportunity. We can be whatever we want here.”
The problem is, Mal’s not sure if that’s really true for her, what with the long list of royal expectations she’s saddled with. She’s not sure she’s ready to be Ben’s high-profile date to the royal Cotillion Ball—let alone queen of Aurodon. (Well, eventually.) Even if she is pretty sure he’s The One.
“Is my entire life just planned out in front of me?” she asks Ben, feeling the constricting duties of her courtly role squeezing her as tightly as the dress she’s struggled to squeeze into. Mal worries that she’ll never measure up, so much so that she’s secretly been using her old spell book—which she was supposed to have surrendered to the Fairy Godmother—to help her keep up with her obligations. She uses it to dye her hair, to memorize the myriad rules of the court, to make meals for her beau.
And deception has a way of undermining relationships.
“You’ve been keeping secrets and lying to me?” Ben exclaims when Mal’s secret comes to light. “I thought we were done with that. This isn’t the Isle of the Lost, Mal.”
Ah, yes: the Isle of the Lost. Mal’s former home.
Maybe that’s where she really belongs, Mal tells him: “I’m not one of those pretty pink princesses, Ben. I’ not one of those ladies from the court. This is fake. I’m a big fake, OK.”
Mal storms off, back to the Isle of the Lost. Back home.
But Mal doesn’t know that some other villainous descendants left behind there—Uma, daughter of Ursula; Harry, son of Captain Hook; and Gil, the son of Gaston—have been biding their time for just such an opportunity.
They intend to make the most of it.
Descendants 2 turns on two conflicts: Mal’s decision to return to the Isle of the Lost, where confrontation with Uma and her toadies awaits; and Mal’s struggle to trust that anyone could unconditionally love her despite her flaws.
Ben, of course, has no intention of just letting his beloved waltz back into that den of iniquity. So he, along with Mal’s three best friends from the Isle—Evie, Jay and Carlos—put together a rescue plan to bring her back. They’ll have to confront Uma, Harry and Gil along the way, of course.
But the deeper conflict here isn’t really that external one, but the internal struggles Mal has regarding her true identity. Though Ben obviously cares for her, Mal struggles to shed the fear that if Ben knew who she really was—how much she still entertains temptations of doing the wrong thing—he wouldn’t love her. That version of Mal, she fears, can never be worthy of the king’s love.
Ben and Mal’s friends try to help her accept that she’s truly lovable, imperfections and all. After Mal leaves, Ben realizes the part he played in Mal’s decision. “This is my fault,” he tells Evie. “I blew it. She’s been under all this pressure, and I went all beast on her.” Ben repeatedly apologizes and takes responsibility for his mistakes. Jay, Carlos and Evie also affirm their connection with Mal. Carlos tells her, “We’re your family, too. We’ve been through a lot. Together. You’re not stopping that now, OK?”
Elsewhere, Ben and Mal try to convince Uma that she doesn’t have to let villainy define her identity. And Jay recruits another friend, Lonnie (who’s a female) to join the fencing team, even though it’s traditionally been a boys-only affair. He says, “There is one thing the Isle has on Aurodon: If you’re strong, we want you by our side, girl or boy.”
As was true in the first Descendants movie, Disney-style, fairy-tale magic permeates this story. But magic is again something that Aurodonians are hesitant to use.
As mentioned, people frown on Mal’s secret use of her old spell book. It’s implied that magic allows those who employ it to take short cuts that could undercut their character.
Magic shows up in a variety of ways. Carlos’ dog, Dude, inadvertently eats a magical “truth telling” pill that Mal has made using her spell book. After Dude wolfs down the pill, he spends the rest of the movie talking, offering all kinds of “honest” commentary on people’s actions and motives.
Two characters have shapeshifting abilities. A magic wand becomes an important plot device. A travel billboard on the Isle of the Lost says, “Hades … It’s under this world.” Mal casts a spell to ride her scooter on water.
The film’s opening scene—which I’ll return to in Other Negative Elements—is a daydreaming sequence in which Mal entertains the fantasy of indulging in wickedness again. (Indeed, the song that goes with it is called “Ways to Be Wicked”). It involves Mal and her friends dropping apples into a churning cauldron that are then given to classmates (and even Fairy Godmother) which cause them to dance wildly and chaotically.
Mal and Ben kiss twice, the second time pretty passionately, near the finale. They also hug and nuzzle each other, and nearly kiss on a couple of other occasions. Evie kisses her boyfriend, Doug, on the cheek. Carlos spends most of the movie working up his courage to ask another character, Jane, to the ball. (She hugs him tightly when he eventually does so). And though their friendship isn’t obviously romantic, it seems Jay and Lonnie’s connection could blossom in that way, too.
Speaking of Jay, lots of girls ogle his biceps (which are usually on display). Other male characters wear tank tops that expose beefy arms, too. Some females’ dresses reveal shoulders. Mal says a dress she’s wearing is so tight she can’t breathe.
Ben and Mal’s friends confront Uma’s forces in a lengthy-but- bloodless sword melee. A few combatants plunge into the ocean and get kicked or knocked down. Harry—who’s wearing his dad’s infamous hook, even though he’s got an intact hand underneath it—waves that implement menacingly in several people’s faces. (He also seems to relish the idea of hurting those he and Uma capture.) Someone is tied up. A character is forced to begin walking the plank.
[Spoiler Warning] A sea monster threatens a ship before it’s confronted by a dragon.
Evie exclaims “oh my gosh” twice. Name-calling (albeit in a comedic context) includes “loser” and “runt”
By far the film’s biggest content stumbling block is its opening scene. As mentioned above, Mal imagines everyone in the school eating magical apples that cause them to act out. That’s mostly shown in the form of behaving rowdily at school, throwing papers up in the air, etc. As that happens, we hear lyrics from the song “Ways to Be Wicked” that say, “Long live havin’ fun/We take what we want/There’s so many ways to be wicked/With us the evil lives on/The right side of wrong/There’s so many ways to be wicked.” Elsewhere in the song, we also hear, “You like it, steal it, gotta beat ‘em to the treasure/A rite of passage/Bad just doesn’t get much better.”
The song’s message is roundly rebuffed by the balance of the movie. Still, the tune’s indulgence of the “fun” of being “wicked” is an off-putting way to start this story.
Desperate to convince Mal to stay, Ben suggests he’d be willing to make compromises to make her more comfortable in Aurodon: “I’ll change. I’ll skip school. Have more fun. I’ll blow off some of my responsibilities.” To the film’s credit, though, Mal immediately rejects those ideas: “No. See? I’m such a terrible influence.”
Dude, the dog, talks a bit too “honestly” about wanting someone to “scratch my butt” (and we hear variants of that phrase a couple of times.) Mal, in a moment of nervousness, says she feels like she’s going to throw up. Another character, Chad Charming, is vain and selfish (though he’s almost entirely used as a comedic foil).
First things first: that opening scene. Yuck. If your family decides to watch this movie, skip it. It’s intended to show the ways that Mal’s still flirting with her dark side, but the song’s lyrics have a big too much fun with that idea for my taste: “There’s so many ways to be wicked/With us, evil lives on/The right side of wrong.”
That scene put me on red alert right away as I watched Descendants 2. Thankfully, the balance of the film moves in much more redemptive directions.
As was true of the first Descendants movie two years ago, this one continues to explore the concept of our identity: who we are, how much our past defines us, how much freedom we have to choose to change. My colleague Paul Asay did an admirable job of exploring those themes in his review of Descendants, and many of those ideas are echoed again here.
That said, this story perhaps turns a bit more on another aspect of identity: the importance of being able to receive others’ unconditional love.
Mal—despite that opening sequence—really isn’t flirting with temptation to be evil. Rather, she’s struggling deeply with insecurities about living up to the role she now has as Ben’s girlfriend and, eventually, as his wife. She flees in part because she fears her “real self” will inflict irreperable damage on him: “It’s only a matter of time before I do something so messed up that not only does the kingdom turn on me, they turn on you.”
Ben responds simply, “Don’t quit us, Mal. The people love you. I love you.”
Indeed, the power of love to help someone move through fear, shame and insecurity is ultimately at the core of this story. Mal’s determined to flee. But Ben (and Mal’s loyal friends) won’t let her go so easily. And so they pursue her, intent upon winning Mal back and helping her face her many fears.
It’s a tender tale, really. And one that reminded me of God’s pursuit of us, even when we’re stubbornly determined to go our own way.
Like the first film, Descendants 2 isn’t without some issues to navigate. But I think they are navigable. And the themes the film grapples with—namely admitting our insecurities and learning to accept others’ love—might just lead to conversations that are a lot more significant than we might have expected for a seemingly lightweight musical romp involving Disney villains’ offspring.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.