Disney’s THE DESCENDANTS series of interrelated middle grade books (fairly easy chapter books) and television musical movies follows the adventures of the children of all of your favorite Disney animated film characters ― both the ones you love and the ones you love to hate. In this series, all of the villains from the various animated films were banished years ago to an isolated island called the Isle of the Lost. The island was then enclosed in a magical force field, an impenetrable dome that keeps the villains locked inside and all magical power locked outside. The Isle of the Lost is a rundown, grimy and unhappy place, while the non-wicked Disney characters live it up in the lovely nearby kingdom of Auradon, ruled over by Beauty and a no-longer-beastly Beast, where flying carpets and magic mix with cell phones and modern technology.
Now it’s twenty years later, and the children of these characters ― both the villains and the heroes and heroines ― are teenagers. Conveniently, these children invariably have a name that echoes their famous parent’s, which is helpful in minimizing confusion for younger readers, though potentially eye-rolling for older ones. Also conveniently, other than romances that were in the original films, the parents of these teens are apparently alone; there’s no word, for example, about Maleficent’s husband or Jafar’s wife. (Single parenthood? Parthogenesis? Inquiring minds want to know!)
This DESCENDANTS series of books, by Melissa de la Cruz, and Disney Channel movies takes place in the following chronological order:
The book The Isle of the Lost (2015) is first in line, chronologically. Mal (daughter of Maleficent), Evie (daughter of the Evil Queen from Snow White), Carlos (son of Cruella de Vil), and Jay (son of Jafar) are the four main teenage characters in this book and (at least thus far) in the series generally. On the Isle of the lost is a dark and mysterious Forbidden Fortress that holds a hidden dragon’s eye, the key to true darkness, which may give the villains a way to escape the loathed island. Various villains are competing to be the first to find the dragon’s eye, but it holds a curse that could backfire on the finder. The four teenagers are more enemies than friends, but Mal hatches a plan to avoid the curse and capture the dragon’s eye, and she needs the other three teens to join her in this dangerous quest. Through their team efforts, Mal, Evie, Carlos and Jay begin to learn to trust each other and form a fast friendship.
Next in line is the first television movie, Descendants, which first aired in 2015. A couple of notable cast members are Kristin Chenoweth as Maleficent and Kathy Najimy as the Evil Queen. Prince Ben, the son of Beauty and the Beast, convinces his parents to allow four teenagers from the Isle of the Lost to be given a chance to be rehabilitated. Mal, Evie, Carlos and Jay are ushered away from the island to go to school at Auradon Prep. Before they leave, Maleficent orders them to steal the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand and give it to her so that she can use it to dissolve the magical barrier around the island and take over the world Auradon. While the four teenage villains-in-training initially fall in with Maleficent’s plan, through their experiences in Auradon they continue to discover that perhaps they aren’t as dark-hearted as they had always assumed, and that retaining some of their edgy, tough character isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In Return to the Isle of the Lost (2016), the second book, Mal, Evie, Carlos and Jay receive a mysterious invitation to return to the Isle. Despite their (somewhat) reformed ways, once they sneak out of Auradon Prep and return to the island, they can’t help but begin to fall back into old habits. A new challenge awaits each of them on the island: Mal (Maleficent’s daughter) needs to find a dragon egg; Jay (Jafar’s son) a golden cobra; Evie (the Evil Queen’s daughter) a poison apple; Carlos (Cruella’s son) a “ring of envy.” But will these four objects be tools for good or evil?
In Rise of the Isle of the Lost (2017), the just-published third book in this series, King Triton’s trident was swiped by his granddaughter Arabella for a little bit of innocent magical experimentation. Arabella is shocked when the trident causes a huge storm, escapes from her hands, and is lost in the ocean. When a separate spell by the Fairy Godmother momentarily lifts the invisible barrier around the Isle of the Lost, the trident slips through. Soon word gets out and all of the island’s inhabitants are on a mad search for the trident, sure that it will bring the finder power, and possibly a way off the island.
Uma, daughter of Ursula the Sea Witch and a rival of Mal since a fight a few years ago made them permanent enemies, is determined to be the one to claim the trident, and she has Harry (son of Captain Hook), Gil (son of Gaston) and a pirate crew and ship to help her. Meantime, Arabella confides her mistake to Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay. The foursome decides to save Auradon by finding the missing trident before anyone from the Isle does. And the race is on!
Despite all her focus on her grudge against Mal, Uma is an enjoyably energetic character, along with her handsome henchmen, sharp Harry and not-so-bright Gil. There’s a minor subplot about young King Ben traveling to a far corner of Auradon to resolve a conflict between two towns, and another about Carlos and Jay’s tryouts for a school sports team called R.O.A.R. (like fencing), but most of the plot of Rise of the Isle of the Lost focuses on the chase for the trident. The story shifts between the points of views of several of the teenage characters, while the adults, almost without exception, conveniently absent themselves from all of the action. I found it a little disturbing that Arabella and the main foursome decide to secretly recover the trident on their own, rather than confiding in any adults and getting their help, despite the grave danger that the loss of the magical trident poses. But I’m viewing it as a parent; young readers are unlikely to mind.
A second TV movie, Descendants 2, premieres on the Disney Channel in July 2017. For children who are enthusiastic about this series, there’s also a live-action Disney television series, Descendants: School of Secrets, and a computer animated series, Descendants: Wicked World, as well as Descendants, a junior novelization of the first TV movie.
The DESCENDANTS books are engaging fantasies for young readers who will appreciate the strong Disney tie-in. The tone of the books is light and humorous, with an emphasis on the adventure. Several of the main foursome have romantic interests: for example, Mal is attracted to Prince Ben of Auradon, while Evie is interested in the delightfully bright and nerdy Doug, son of Dopey the dwarf. These romances are very innocent, strictly on a middle grade level, and the villainy is more of the popcorn variety than actually evil. Evil is handled lightly and in the end will reliably be overcome by good.
The DESCENDANTS books and the TV movies are light and fluffy fantasy adventures. I recommend these books and movies for readers in the 8-14 age range who enjoy Disney generally, and specifically shows like High School Musical or books like the DISNEY FAIRIES series.