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Kenny Ortega on ‘Descendants’ Auditions, Modernizing Classic Disney

The phrase “happily ever after” is synonymous with countless children’s fairy tales, but what happens after “happily ever after” has gone unanswered. That is the very premise of Disney Channel’s latest original movie, “Descendants,” which follows the teen offspring of Disney’s most evil villains, including Maleficent, the Evil Queen, Cruella de Vil and Jafar.

Director Kenny Ortega, the man behind mega-franchise “High School Musical,” modernized classic Disney tales for “Descendants,” which hails from writing duo Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, who are celebrating 30 years of working together.

“Since we wrote features for most of our career, we were used to writing big,” McGibbon says of working in the television space for “Descendants.” (The pair penned Julia Roberts’ “Runway Bride” together early in their careers.) Parriott says, “We aimed to write something we enjoyed that would have broad appeal for parents to watch and enjoy along with their kids and tweens.”

The two writers and co-producers worked closely with Ortega. “Kenny is brilliant, creative, passionate about the work, and incredibly respectful of the writing process,” McGibbon says. Parriott adds, “Kenny takes such joy in his work that it is infectious. I wish I could crawl into his mind and see how it works. He is just a lovely person.”

Ortega tells Variety about the audition process, mixing classic characters with new faces and whether his latest Disney creation can match his past hits.

What is “Descendants” all about?

Our movie primarily focuses in on the story of the teenage descendants of some of the most evil characters in Disney fairy tales. All of the villains have been banished to this prison island called the Isle of the Lost that has a protective barrier on it and they’ve been there for over 20 years. Many of them have children now and so our story begins with a young soon-to-be king — 16-year-old Ben, who is the son of Belle and Beast — who decides that he wants to create a proclamation giving four children of the most evil characters an opportunity to leave the island and to redeem themselves. He believes in his heart-of-hearts that although they come from evil, being given a chance to make choices for themselves, that perhaps they won’t choose it for themselves.

How did you modernize Disney tales for this new-age audience?

We have two really wonderful writers, Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon, who created “Descendants,” and when the script was sent to me, I was just blown away. First, I thought it was a feature movie. It’s a big story. To type the premise of 20 years after “happily ever after” and beginning a story with new generation characters and also incorporating heritage characters was amazing to me that I get to play in that world, having been a fan of Disney animation my whole life.

Do you think “Descendants” will be as popular and successful as “High School Musical”?

I certainly hope so. It would be wonderful if we could capture the attention of another generation. “High School Musical” will be 10 years old next year, and so it would be really quite fun if we found the magic again — that lightning in a bottle, I guess. You never know. “High School Musical” was a phenomenon, and it took the world. It created an excitement all over the world, in many languages on many continents in many counties and millions and millions of kids. To be able to touch that kind of magic again would be extraordinary.

How did you know that the four main teen cast members would make the perfect Disney Channel original movie stars?

Some of them have already proven it in that they’re doing work already or have done work that has shown they’re sought after and they’re sought after for a reason because they’re great. Booboo Stewart did the “Twilight” franchise and “X-Men,” and Dove Cameron and Cameron Boyce both star in their own television series on the Disney Channel. And then we found two brand-new, wonderful actors, Sofia Carson — we found her out of Florida; this is her first time in front of a movie camera — and Mitchell Hope who plays our prince. Both of these kids are really dynamic and gifted young people.

Was the audition process grueling for such a hotly anticipated Disney project?

I put everyone through a heck of an audition process. There’s interview and improv and sport and dance and music, and by the time Disney and I are ready to make those choices, we all feel pretty great that we’ve got partners we’re moving into the experience with.

How was working with Kristin Chenoweth?

She’s just a really generous person and actor. Dimensionally talented. Incomparable, really. The woman can inhabit a character on so many levels … she’s like a stick of dynamite exploding off the stage. She’s truly original and I was honored and thrilled to be able to have her as an actor in our movie.

“Descendants” premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel. It has already generated more than 1 million views on the Watch Disney Channel app in a record five days.

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