When they created dance moves for Disney Channel movie “Descendants,” director-choreographer Kenny Ortega and co-choreographer Paul Becker faced no less a challenge than expressing the conflict in the human mind between good and evil.
The smallscreen feature, which bows July 31, focuses on the teenage kids of classic Disney villains as they attend prep school with the children of Disney heroes. But while the classic Disney nemeses — Cruella De Vil, Maleficent, the Evil Queen and Jafar — are one-dimensional in their maliciousness, their adolescent offspring are deep in the throes of an existential crisis: Are they good or are they bad?
When offered a shot at redemption and to make, per Ortega, “choices of their own that will determine who they become,” they’re not sure in which direction to go.
It’s this confounding intersection of bad vs. benevolent that Ortega and Becker — who, together, had a mere three weeks to rehearse the cast — aimed to project in the film’s punched-up dance sequences, beginning with its rousing opening number, “Bad to the Core,” set on the Isle of the Lost, where all Disney villains, and now their delinquent progeny, have been exiled.
Ortega’s roots in dance go back to the late ’70s, when legendary actor-dancer-director Gene Kelly took the neophyte choreographer under his wing. That mentorship would prime Ortega for his work on such films as “Dirty Dancing” and the “High School Musical” TV franchise.
“Gene would show me films and share with me how he made (directorial) choices and why the camera cut there, and why he selected a high angle or a master (shot),” Ortega says.
“All of those things were a big part of my learning the craft. For me, whether it’s dialogue or whether it’s song- or dance-driven, it’s all storytelling. The director and choreographer (in me) live very close to one another.”
Becker relates how he and Ortega constructed the scene on the Isle of Lost. “We were brainstorming on what we wanted the feel to be, and what the people (there) are like,” he says, noting that they came up with key references, such as Tim Burton, Bob Fosse, “Oliver Twist” and “Thriller.”
In the end, Ortega and Becker pulled from various pop cultural influences, including early ’70s punk rock, ’80s icon Toni Basil and Onna White’s Oscar-winning choreography in the 1968 film “Oliver!” to achieve an aesthetic that’s “rock and pop and punk-meets-Broadway-meets-movie musical.”
“We wanted it to have some sort of contemporary pop edge that was accessible to a young audience,” Ortega says. “I’m hoping there are moves (in the film) that people will connect with and emulate, and perhaps learn. We were very lucky with that with ‘High School Musical.’ ”
Like any other compelling element of cinema, choreography has the power to inspire in a way that extends far beyond the physical, notes Becker.
“Neither Kenny nor I would ever look at the dancing in ‘Descendants’ as just a dance number; we would look at it like a scene,” he says. “We had the love story, the connections — all those moments were just as important as the choreography. It was about making the audience feel something, and I really think we accomplished that.”