by Alex Dewing | October 4, 2020
When I was sixteen I moved to a new school for the first time. It was a new place full of different people and felt nothing like my old school. Not too long into my first term there I caught the flu and had to stay at home. Bored of daytime TV and flicking through the channels, I found that Disney had released a new original TV movie only the day before and so I gave it a go.
I ended up watching it four times that day.
Disney’s Descendants (2015), directed by Disney veteran Kenny Ortega (of High School Musical fame), is a live-action musical fantasy set in the United States of Auradon, home to every character from Disney’s storybook. However, this story is a little different and turns the focus on four children of Disney’s most iconic villains who, at the hand of Auradon’s rulers, Belle and the Beast, have been banished to their own island known as the Isle of the Lost: Mal (Dove Cameron), daughter of Maleficent, Evie (Sofia Carson), daughter of The Evil Queen from Snow White, Carlos (the late Cameron Boyce), son of Cruella de Vil, and Jay (Booboo Stewart), son of Jafar. Prior to his ascension to the Auradon throne, Ben (Mitchell Hope), son of Belle and the Beast, decrees that these four villain kids, the VKs, are to be given a shot at a better life by transferring to Auradon Prep. But of course his act of kindness is exploited by the VKs parents who plot to use their children to help free them from the island and claim Auradon for the side of evil.
When I first watched Descendants, the journey of the VKs moving to a new place just like me, as well as the colourful capers and joyous musical set-pieces, began my love for the film. However, as I’ve returned for rewatches over the years, the fundamental theme of unlearning explored in the film became more prominent and resonated with me. As we grow up, we are influenced by our parents, family, and friends; for better or worse, beliefs held by those surrounding us tend to rub off. But at some point, we have to start learning how to unlearn these ideas so that we have the space to form our own opinions, make up our own minds, and live authentically as ourselves.
Defined as the process of breaking down “the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings, and biases”, the parallels between unlearning and Descendants are evident. The Isle of the Lost acts as a microcosm for their unlearning; in this “wicked world” they are trapped by the beliefs and habits of their environment as much as they are trapped by the magical barrier surrounding the island. Mal’s first lines even state it “makes her glad” to be called “trouble,” “bad,” and “evil,” with each of the VK’s repeating this sentiment in their introductions during “Rotten to the Core.” Stuck in a place where the worse you are the more power, respect, and, most importantly, parental love you recieve, it is no surprise that the VKs swiftly learn the ways of evil.
When they exchange the vibrant shades of the Isle for the pastel pinks of Auradon Prep, they are brought into a new setting full of new people with different beliefs, much like the experience of many as they leave for college or university. Here they meet people who all sit on the spectrum of goodness. From Audrey (Sarah Jeffery), a self-absorbed Princess who doesn’t believe a VK has the ability to change, to Jane (Brenna D’Amico), the self-conscious daughter of the Fairy Godmother who is bullied for her looks and only seeks to make friends. These people force the VKs into the realisation that the people of Auradon were not born good, so how could they have been born evil?
With this new knowledge, our protagonists are offered the chance to break down the origins of their wicked ways and, now that they are away from their parents and their toxic environment, they can ask themselves if these beliefs are in alignment with the life they want, and as such can start the journey of unlearning. In later films, the questioning of where the “goodness” and “evilness” comes from becomes more ingrained with the symbolism of the barrier around the Isle as characters come to understand that people cannot unlearn bad habits if they cannot escape the place those very habits were learnt. “They were raised by their parents. What do you think villains teach their kids?” says Prince Chad Charming (Jedidiah Goodacre), arguing that the VKs can’t play fairly. But away from their parents, they have the freedom to put aside their teachings and take some lessons from “Goodness Class.”
Alongside the setting, Descendants conveys the power of unlearning through the personal arcs of the VKs, my favourite of which is the most unassuming of them all. Carlos’ narrative is one essentially left as comic relief, which Boyce delivers with absolute charm, but his story of cutting ties with the learned biases in his life is powerful for how seemingly small in scale it is. After the events of Cruella de Vil’s evil escapades, the villain has grown an acute fear of dogs, a fear she passes down to Carlos. When told of their summoning to Auradon Prep, Carlos tries to flee, before naming his fear: “I read somewhere that Auradon allows dogs. Mom said they’re rabid pack animals that eat boys who don’t behave.” When Carlos finally comes face to face with a dog, the campus mutt, Dude, his instinct tells him to run. But Ben picks up the pup and calmly introduces the two and, after some time together, Dude and Carlos become inseparable. It’s a quiet yet surprisingly emotional moment, backed by a melancholy turn in David Lawrence’s original score. Most importantly, it acts as a catalyst for Carlos, who suddenly realises that so many of his attitudes and beliefs weren’t ever his own. When Cruella sees Carlos holding Dude, she maintains her fear and disgust, but he stands up for himself. “He loves me and I love him.” Carlos doesn’t need his mother to change her mind, what he needs is for her to know that he has and that he will continue to unlearn and grow, even deciding to dedicate his life to becoming a vet.
On the opposite side to Carlos is Mal, whose journey is perhaps the most complex. The other VKs all find something that makes their experience of unlearning tangible; namely Dude for Carlos, Chad’s exploitation of Evie showing her there is more to life than marrying Princes, and the joy of Tourney (an Auradon sport) teaching Jay the value in teamwork over individualism. This is not the case for Mal. Her impetus for change is her relationship with Ben. However, their connection stems from a love potion and consequently Mal doubts all the kind words Ben says about her ability for goodness. In one scene, Ben takes Mal on a date (which may or may not be dream date goals, with a huge picnic spread beside a shimmering enchanted lake) and Mal expresses guilt over “spelling him.” She agonises over not knowing “what [her] heart is telling [her],” as heard in her solo song “If Only,” because of the fact that she cannot believe that change is possible for her. “Your mother is Mistress of Evil and I’ve got the poster parents for goodness,” Ben says, now free of the potions grasp unbeknownst to Mal, “But we’re not automatically like them, we get to choose who we’re going to be. And right now I can look into your eyes and tell that you’re not evil.” Unlearning is a difficult and slow process. Often the hardest part is simply accepting the idea of it: you can’t move forward when something, or someone, has you tied back. Unlike the others, it is only at the end, when she discovers the truth about Ben’s feelings for her and has the choice to pass over to good or evil, that she finally sees that she can be truly herself by questioning the lessons ingrained into her and changing her mind.
Descendants shows the importance of unlearning and the power it has when you’re young, allowing you to choose what does and doesn’t resonate with you in your life. What’s more, the film shows that it is a process, and not always an easy one. Listen to the first song in Descendants 2 and you’ll see the struggle is real. The echoes of old beliefs can reverberate back when you least expect it, but what’s important is taking the steps to unlearn and grow in new directions. The series continues to argue for the right to define yourself outside of your family, economic status, or where you’re from in its next two entries. And when these ideas are conveyed with such colourful characters and vivid song-and-dance numbers, what isn’t there to love?