This Disney Channel TV musical got some attitude from people with a blanket hatred for Disney Channel TV musicals, but as the genre goes, this is pretty much the best they’ve ever done.
The concept is brilliant…the children of the great Disney animated villains, who grew up on a kind of magical prison colony called ‘the Isle of the Lost’, are given a chance to attend school with the children of the great Disney heroes, and are recruited by their parents to break the barrier keeping them in check. But once at the school, they find themselves connecting with the people they’re supposed to betray and generally enjoying having normal lives, and they ultimately decide to defy their heritage and thwart their parents’ plans. It’s an inspired idea…a wonderfully creative premise, an irresistible story, tons of opportunities for character development, and the chance to milk the Disney Animated Canon references for all they’re worth.
There have actually been occasional complaints about this premise, but nearly all of them stem from the “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” mentality that demands detailed answers to every conceivable continuity question. This is sadly all-too-common in the internet age, mostly due to certain prominent Pop culture properties that became so ambitious with their world-building that they created unrealistic expectations for other works of fiction. I can certainly see why someone could not like this movie based on its flawed execution, but if the reason you don’t like it is that its premise “raises too many questions”, then I pity you.
Despite the abundant references to Disney animated canon, the film is entirely in live action, presented as a kind of fantasy High School Musical with higher stakes. The film isn’t perfect by any means…the level of the dialogue is about that of a Disney Channel sitcom, and the special effects are about what you’d expect of a low-budget TV movie. And while there is certainly some memorable music, the score as a whole is something of a mixed bag.
The establishing number for the four main characters, “Rotten To the Core”, gets a somewhat mixed reception, especially when it became the only Top Forty hit from the film, but I think it’s extremely effective in context. It’s a deliberately ugly Dubstep-based piece, but its willful ugliness is a perfect way to emphasize the change in tone from the early scenes in Aurodon (which were stately and sunlit) to the defiant, grungy bitterness of the Island of the Lost. You could actually argue that it’s bad music (although it’s really rather catchy in a perverse way), but to paraphrase Giuseppe Verdi, sometimes you have to make bad music to make good musicals.
The big Broadway-style showstopper for Kristen Chenoweth as lead villain Maleficent, “Evil Like Me” (written by Broadway veteran Andrew Lippa) is an enjoyable composition and a great performance showcase for Chenoweth. Some people have complained because Chenoweth’s performance did not bear much resemblance to the Maleficent seen in the original Sleeping Beauty film, but there’s no denying that her performance works extremely well on its own terms. She doesn’t come across as particularly menacing, but she plays the part of a comedic villain with great panache and seems to be having a ton of fun in the part. And there is one fantastic song, the big ballad “If Only”, which forms the emotional heart of the show, and is lovely and touching enough to do justice to the moment.
On the other hand, the love song for the leading man after the main character has temporarily brainwashed him into loving her, “Did I Mention”, is incredibly embarrassing, and the hip-hop arrangement of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast is just painful. And frankly, the requisite dance party ending required in all Disney TV musicals would have been much more satisfying here if the song accompanying it was a little more memorable…it isn’t exactly on the level of “We’re All In This Together”.
But this film had such a wonderful concept from the beginning that would take a lot of failures to outweigh it, and the truth is that it actually does a lot of things right. Some have rightly pointed out that an idea this complex would have been more satisfying as a series, but given the inevitably rushed pace of the film, they did a surprisingly good job of fitting in the necessary character development with economy. The characters are still extremely three-dimensional, and as predictable as the overall conclusion is, there are genuine surprises tucked into the plot. In spite of not having nearly enough money to do the fantasy climax justice in a visual sense, the emotional payoff at the end is intense enough to overcome the limits of the physical production and capture some of the genuine intangible magic associated with Disney at its best.
Dove Cameron as antiheroine Mal is touching and sincere as the tough kid learning what it feels like to be loved, Sofia Carson is sweet as beautiful-flirt-with-hidden-depth Evie, and Cameron Boyce as the sweetly nebbishy Carlos and Booboo Stewart as the rowdy but subtly vulnerable Jay do solid work and make their bond with the others convincing. Mitchell Hope is particularly good as leading man Prince Ben, radiating warmth and benevolence as the almost saintly King-to-be who thinks everyone deserves a second chance. Granted, the rest of the cast is merely average and the other three villainous parents are played by third-rate pseudo-comic hams, but the roles that really matter are actually really well done.
This film has the requisite flaws all Disney TV musicals share, and if those are enough to make you automatically look down on it, so be it. But if you have a soft spot for the more competent entries in that particular genre niche (like the High School Musical movies), this is easily the best of those entries so far, and is well worth seeing for the concept alone.