Disney’s “Descendants” is the franchise phenomenon that just won’t stop — look no further than the climbing YouTube numbers for its songs and performers.
Its latest and third installment centers around the teenage children of famous villains who return to the Isle of the Lost looking to recruit new kids to join them at their school, Auradon Prep. But things go haywire when Hades, the god of the underworld, escapes and the citizens panic — all told through song and dance.
When “Descendants 3” screened last summer, the movie received a delightfully wicked reception, with over 8.4 million viewers tuning in on the Disney Channel. The soundtrack went on to great success as well, and, so far, the songs from the third installment logged over 111 million views in just the first five days.
Steven Vincent, vp of music and soundtracks at the Disney Channel, has been responsible for all three “Descendant” films as well as the “High School Musical” productions. Along with songwriter Antonina Armato (“Adams Family”), Vincent spoke to Variety about the pressures of maintaining a franchise, the songwriting process and the possibility of a fourth “Descendants” movie.
What are the pressures of doing a third movie given the huge success of the first two?
Steven Vincent: It has to be something we haven’t done before. That’s where the pressure lies. Kenny [Ortega] and I look back and say, “OK, what else?” So we don’t repeat ourselves even with an opening number. The first movie opened with “Rotten to the Core” this big EDM/dance track. The second was high energy and we looked back to Michael Jackson and other types of dancing. With the third one, we went through the script looking for musical opportunities where could we use big numbers and where could we do character numbers, like Sofia doing “One Kiss.” She hadn’t had a number to herself in the first two movies, so we looked for a spot where she could have a number to herself and it would be fresh for this movie.
How did you settle on the opening number, “Good to be Bad?”
Antonina Armato: You have to remember we get a lot of push back and we’re dealing with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Some like it salty and some like it sweet. This was the hardest of all to get everyone aligned. At first, people weren’t sure about “Good to be Bad.” We had so much success with the three songs from the second movie and we had so much pressure to make sure we didn’t underdeliver. We wanted to make sure that those lyrics made you feel like, it was a celebration. These are the misfit kids and they have a sense of pride all of a sudden. Maybe we’re the bad kids. Maybe we’re the bad apples, but guess what? We made applesauce and it tastes good and everyone is stoked.
Vincent: I remember hearing the last line and it got everyone at the network to understand that these kids were celebrating where they came from. “You’re from the Isle if anybody asks / It’s good to be bad” … turned into a lyric about self-empowerment. It turned the villain kids into heroes. It was perfect.
“Queen of Mean” is another huge character number, sung by Sarah Jeffrey as Audrey. Can you talk about its genesis?
Armato: I’ve never been a mean girl, but I’ve been on the other end of it. I’ve been misunderstood and related to that. At first, her character was always doing the right thing and, all of a sudden, everything you thought was gonna happen didn’t and she said, “Well, I could either take this or I can empower myself.” … I thought a lot of young girls would enjoy that sort of just the way it sounds. It was fun and Sarah embodied that song in such a great way. It was such a hit that it trended number one on YouTube for almost two weeks. The reaction has been incredible and it’s become the zeitgeist.
Vincent: It’s tough to say, “I want you to write a Disney villain song, that’s a legitimate Top 40 hit and does all the storytelling and character development that a song like ‘The Little Mermaid’ would do. Oh, and it can’t be a parody.” It’s a real accomplishment from a storytelling and songwriting standpoint. … What was so powerful about this song for me is [that] you see her transform from this spoiled princess into the queen of mean. How do you capture that? How do you make it something that can stand against, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” [“The Little Mermaid] and Cruella De Vil and the other Disney songs?
How do you view the cross-generational appeal of the “Descendants” franchise?
Vincent: The goal is to write music that is timeless. Kids that love the “Descendants” movies now will probably show these movies to their kids 20 years from now.
Could there be a fourth “Descendants” movie?
Vincent: I think everybody would love the franchise to continue. It’s just been, what is the main storyline? Or is it a new storyline? I think everybody believes in the power of the “Descendants” franchise, but also the possibilities. There’s a lot to explore for sure.