Movie Review: “Descendants: The Rise of Red” is “Grease 2” Meets “Back to the Future” Set in Auradon

Disney Channel’s Descendants trilogy wrapped with an animated special, Descendants: The Royal Wedding, which included a tease of what was to come: White roses dripping with red paint and a pan down the rabbit hole. At long last, fans can travel from Auredon to Wonderland and back again in Descendants: The Rise of Red. With few recurring characters, the film is less of a sequel and more of a spin-off; The Grease 2 of the Descendants franchise, although one that seems destined to expand with more stories.

(Disney/Quantrell Colbert)

(Disney/Quantrell Colbert)

When Auradon Prep opens its doors to Wonderland, Red (Kylie Cantrall, Gabby Duran & the Unsittables) steps into a world she’s only dreamed of. As the apprehensive daughter of the Queen of Hearts (Rita Ora, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), Red is particularly happy when she meets Chloe (Malia Baker, The Baby-Sitters Club), the daughter of her mother’s former best-friend-turned-enemy, Cinderella (Brandy, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella). But when the Queen of Hearts enacts revenge on the school that set her on her villainous path, Red and Chloe use the Mad Hatter’s clock to try and rewrite the past.

The bulk of The Rise of Red plays like the Descendants equivalent of Back to the Future. Red and Chloe aren’t trapped in the past, but there is a “mystery event” that caused bad blood between their mothers. While they assimilate into life at Merlin Academy (the predecessor of Auradon Prep, run by its namesake, played by Ted Lasso’s Jeremy Swift), they befriend the teenage versions of their mothers, Bridget (Ruby Rose Turner, Coop and Cami Ask the World) and Ella (Morgan Dudley, A Tourist’s Guide to Love) while they wait to find out how Bridget went from an enthusiastic baker obsessed with the color pink to a vengeful red queen with a personal vendetta against Ella.

Red is technically a “VK” (Villain’s Kid, for the unfamiliar), although she doesn’t seem to have a mean streak. Instead, the closest character you’ll find to a true VK in The Rise of Red is Uliana, played by Dara Reneé (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series), Ursula’s sister who has her own band of baddies at Merlin Academy. Fans of the original films will enjoy seeing younger versions of the original VK’s parents, including Maleficent, Hades, and Hook. But in terms of characters from the previous trilogy who make an appearance here, the film is limited to just Uma (China Anne McClain), new headmaster of Auradon Prep, and Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson).

(Disney/Quantrell Colbert)

(Disney/Quantrell Colbert)

Part of the Descendants formula for success has been the music, and Descendants: The Rise of Red is no exception. Uma sings a reprise of “What’s My Name,” and from Disney’s animated classic Cinderella, Brandy and Paolo Montalban (reprising his role as Prince Charming from the 1997 Wonderful World of Disney film) sing “So This Is Love.” But the standout original song is undoubtedly “Life is Sweeter,” which also gets a few reprises.

Descendants: The Rise of Red isn’t better than the previous three films, but it does deserve credit for daring to be different. It crafts a new story that’s sure to resonate with mothers and daughters, and it avoids setting up any type of a love interest for Red and Chloe. The story takes a little too long to get going, and the catalyst for Bridget becoming the Queen of Hearts feels weak, but the cast does a fine job in their roles, and as with the previous three films, I expect to see a lot of kids going trick-or-treat this Halloween as Red and Chloe.

I give Descendants: The Rise of Red 3.5 out of 5 flamingo feathers.

Descendants: The Rise of Red premieres Friday, July 12th on Disney+, followed by a special encore on Friday, August 9th, at 8/7c on Disney Channel.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).