The Disney+ original movie has all the typical hallmarks of a Disney Channel movie, with a brightly lit, squeaky-clean aesthetic and unchallenging, easy to follow plot
Starring Peyton Elizabeth Lee, Niles Fitch, Isabella Blake-Thomas, Olivia Deeble, Noah Lomax, Faly Rakotohavana, Ashley Liao, Sam Page, Greg Bryk, Elodie Yung, and Skylar Astin
Essentially a superhero version of popular Disney Channel franchise Descendants, Secret Society of Second-Born Royals feels like something that would otherwise have been shuffled off to Disney Channel, had it not been for the advent of streaming service Disney+. When put on a forum to be compared with the cinematic spectacle that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney’s other big-budget offerings, it seems slightly unfair, especially since the more appropriate comparisons would be with the High School Musical films, or Freaky Friday, which most adults wouldn’t have seen unless Disney+ had provided them. Secret Society‘s visibility is, in a way, an issue for its own success, as it simply shouldn’t be judged on the same standards that theatrical releases are.
Set in a futuristic city known as Illyria, which looks suspiciously like Canada, in which there is, ever so conveniently, an international school for royals, because that wouldn’t be a massive international security risk, and is of course entirely necessary because, as we all know, royals have a special curriculum. Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), the second-born princess in Illyria’s royal family, actively and publicly campaigns against the monarchy (which is interesting, but not expanded upon enough because it would entirely dismantle the entire premise of the movie) with her regular friend Mike (Noah Lomax), just so we can see the normal life she’s giving up to sign herself away to her new destiny.
As it transpires, second-born royals have superpowers and are destined to protect the world from cataclysmic disaster in the titular “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals”, or SSSBR for a catchy abbreviation. Sam, herself, has heightened senses, which is ironic because she’s actually remarkably blinkered in what she pays attention to, while popularity-obsessed Roxana (Olivia Deeble) can turn invisible, people-pleaser Princess January (Isabella Blake-Thomas) is a power stealer, conceited Prince Tuma (Niles Fitch) has the powers of mental persuasion, and loner Prince Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana) can control bugs. They are all led by Professor James Morrow (Skylar Astin), who can multiply himself, and also by Sam’s mother, Queen Catherine (Elodie Yung), who secretly shares Sam’s gifts.
The opening of the movie is successful because it introduces you to the characters and to their dynamics and does help you care about them, but there is an awkward transition with their superpowers. Once they’re introduced to their powers, they essentially engage in one training exercise before they’re suddenly forced into high powered missions which, predictably, they fail, leading to an unnecessarily large plot point of having disappointed Morrow, even though they cannot plausibly be the only four second born royals on the planet capable of taking on the enemy at this juncture in the plot. If the training montage had been more substantial, demonstrating that all of the characters had gained mastery over their powers before they tackled an important mission, then at least it would have felt that their defeat was earned, but instead it was just because they were inexperienced, which wasn’t their fault, but rather Morrow’s.
By the time the traditional superhero movie stuff happens, which is for telekinetic fugitive Inmate 34 (Greg Bryk) to use Princess Eleanor’s (Ashley Liao) coronation to dismantle the monarchy once and for all, there isn’t terribly much film left, and it doesn’t take much intellectual smarts to outwit him or defeat the foe.
Throughout the film, there were many emotional arcs and developments, but not all of these landed. While there’s the typical teen movie fare of the second-born royals self-reflecting and improving: in the case of Matteo feeling like he has friends, Tuma acknowledging how he has become conceited and Roxana becoming less obsessed with her follower count, the main meat is given to Sam. However, ultimately, her relationships with her mother, sister and friend aren’t particularly well developed and are all but forgotten for the middle part of the movie.
However, the film is held together by a capable cast, who make it the most believable that they can from a paper-thin script. The fight sequences are well achieved, with ambitious choreography making up for certain moments of absurdity, and the graphic effects are quite well achieved.
An origin story, essentially, Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is an unchallenging viewing experience. The plot itself is remarkably simple, yet takes an inexplicably long time for everything to get going, but most of the characters are likeable enough, owing to the charisma of the cast, and the film also delivers an unsettlingly surprising twist in the third act.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is streaming now on Disney+