I believe we can all agree, Disney has been going through a bit of a shift both in their animation and live-action mediums and changing expectations. Even a matter of years ago Disney might not have green-lit now major hits like ‘Owl House’ or ‘Big City Greens’. As it has been said, Disney has come to play around with its content more- and it has been paying off.
Once the most hyped non-theatrical films for The House of Mouse were that of DCOMS- ‘Disney Channel Original Movies’ as well as OVA style films and they were made into a huge deal with tons of PR. Anyone who was a kid, or a reluctant babysitter, 1990s-2000s could elaborate on that fact. And sleepovers and movie premier parties were a thing especially if your favorite network talent starred in the film.
Fast forwarding today I feel it is needless to say that to some extent things have changed very clearly. Even if you take out of consideration things like having sleepovers outside a virtual content and having a get-together just sounds weird. No one really watches things that much on a live-broadcast.
With Disney offering their network content on their Disney Now app (with cable subscription access) available for streaming hours before broadcast, and the popularity of streamers it just seems odd to wait around until 8 o’clock to watch something when you can press play after homework. Or it is cheaper to buy that season pass off iTunes or Amazon then pay for cable.This is a fact Disney seems to be aware of as we see more international channels (Disney Channel, Disney Jr. and Disney XD) purged in favor of the nearly year old Disney+.
Disney+ has been putting out a nice and steady stream of content across different mediums and for various audiences. Yet none of them quite felt like they were in-vein of the almost traditional DCOM vein. That is until their newest original film released- ‘Secret Society of Second-Born Royals’.
Feeling like a mesh of a (light) western ‘My Hero Academia’ and ‘Princess Protection Program’, Disney stays from their normal famous princess model with a story with more edge and a heroine more Kim Possible than a damsel in distress. But fails to reach full potential and emotional punch as it tries to figure out is it a DCOM or a hero flick.
The film follows the second-born royal daughter Sam, a modern teen princess of a small fictional European nation, who has a burning desire to do something that matters. And absolutely nothing with royalty or the word she was born with, even to the point she protests and cries out for the monarchy to end. Feeling suffocated and lingering in her sister’s perfect shadow as the coronation looms pushes Sam’s rebellious nature up to full blast as she sneaks out from a royal function to see a band live at a club. And thanks to her newly heightened senses suffers from sensory overload and pulls a fire alarm- only to end up in jail overnight and punished by being forced to attend summer school.
There the rest of an ensemble cast fills out and they are stuck upside the head with the revelation that each of them possess a superpower that they must learn to use to help keep the world safe. Provided they pass their course they will be able to join the ranks of the secret society. And failure means having their powers stripped and memories erased of their summer of training. Oh, and Sam’s mother is the head of this group much to her dismay.
Without missing a beat the teens are thrown into a train exercise that reveals their powers; Sam baring heightened senses, Tuma being able to command people at will, commanding bugs for Matteo, social media influencer Roxana can become invisible and rounding out the group in January who can borrow other’s powers.
The first half of the film feels more or less like a typical origin/ beginning story for our heroes complete with a long training montage. The act only really seems to end with the team being sent out for their first mission, and due to their lack of teamwork (not completely their fault as they never actually did any real group training on-screen). With the act only capping with the introduction of the villain of the story, Inmate 34.
Yet with the second half we see a huge shift in tone and narrative with more focus on each character’s personal arcs- but given most are only introduced within the latter half we only get to see small bits of the conflict and resolve for everyone. Though Sam does get hit on the head a bit harder with a revelation as the climax ends. And it all feels very…redundant. We do get some exposition and understanding of our villain and his motives along with a plot twist. As well as the big final battle. But because the stakes feel low and without a real connection to the characters or their world it’s, well, meh.
And if Disney is banking on a sequel- they need us to care and be engaged.
Though yes, Disney has been turning out good if not great series. I almost feel at this point to be included to say that might be limited to DisneyTVA at this point. Following on the heels of the un-noteworthy ‘Upside Down Magic’ Disney is showing an interest in fantastical films- but is lacking that spark with the narrative and characters to achieve it.
SSSB gives us no reason to care, nothing that allows viewers to feel any type of reliability with the characters. A fact that is striking as you step back and realize that Sam, along with on one else, honestly had no character growth or development. Sam accepted her powers and now has a larger group of people in her life she gets along with. But it comes on as flash as turning a switch on, we see no progression; it just happens.
Writing an ensemble is challenging, and it seems trying to balance all the loud personalities along with the major and minor plot points left the story crowded and any development and any side stories fall way side. And this is again, giving no reason for the viewer to care.
We never really see the resolve of Sam’s friend Mike learning about the society and his best friend’s powers. Nor do we get any major build up or reconcile with Sam and her sister. And let us be honestly, the coronation was nothing more than a backdrop for the final battle.
Nor do we even see any type of resolve for any of the arcs the other royals have, a true shame especially for Roxana who we do briefly see struggling not being active on social media and having her following watching her. That could have been a really good and deep story line to run with.
Yet somehow my biggest complaint falls in line with the powers. In itself we can question just how only the second borne heirs have this ability. Even though their powers become very clear in their simulator, it just feels like they figure them out too fast. The training sequences focus solely on each character as he or she works on controlling their powers prior to going out on their dry run.
Note control only; we never see them develop their abilities, figure out limitations and work to surpass their limits. They are never seen to really train together nor are they taught anything they might need to know on a mission. Like, you know basic self-defense. Somehow we are just to accept after a summer of training they are able to join the ranks and go out on their own missions seems like a huge stretch.
Class 1-A from ‘My Hero Academia’ have spent over 200 chapters learning their powers, training, developing and surpassing the limits. Yet they are not even halfway to being true full blooded pros there is no way the teens of this film are nowhere ready to save the world.