Many of the movies that have premiered on Disney+ in the last few months (“Mulan,” “Artemis Fowl,” etc.) are would-be blockbusters that were made with theaters in mind and only went digital because of the pandemic. “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” is obviously, glaringly, and insistently not one of those movies. Produced by the Disney Channel and seemingly budgeted at the same cost as an episode of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” this cut-rate superhero origin story tries to do for kids what “Sky High,” “The Princess Diaries,” and “Agent Cody Banks” have already done for kids, but cheaper and at the same time.
Of course, it should be noted that Anna Mastro’s “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” might skew a bit younger than any of those films — if your child can say its tongue-twister of a title without struggling, they’re already too old for it — but it’s hard to tell if it’s deliberately targeting a certain demographic or just too sloppy and unsophisticated to work on anyone who’s learned to tell the difference in quality between “Cars” and “Planes.”
While certain elements of this original movie (its contrived fairy tale premise, most of all) suggest that it was intended for an audience who might be making their first baby steps into the crazy world of live-action content, others (a plane crash alluded to in the prologue, a bomb that threatens to blow up a coronation, a roiling undercurrent of anti-monarchist rage that’s defused in the final moments, etc.) give the impression that Disney was aiming for a “my first Marvel” vibe and fell short of the runway. Sometimes this movie feels like playing peek-a-boo with a 10-year-old, and sometimes it feels like trying to teach a nursery school class about the value of protest in a seemingly hopeless political ecosystem. It never feels worth watching.
So “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” — you’ll never guess what this story is is about. At first blush, the film seems poised to be a modern, winking riff on the princess stories that built the Disney empire into the world-eater it is today. “You know the fairy tale about a princess waiting for a brave prince to come and save her?” asks the opening narration. “Yeah, this is not that kind of story.”
So what kind of story is it? Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) doesn’t quite know yet. Second in line for the crown of a fictional European country called Illyria — a dead ringer for downtown Toronto — Sam doesn’t need any younger siblings to have some of the biggest middle child energy this side of Jan Brandy. Her perfect older sister Eleanor (Ashley Liao) has been groomed to succeed their widowed queen mother (Élodie Yung) since they were little, and she takes to all of the smiling and waving like a birthright, but Sam is happy to follow in Princess Margaret’s footsteps.
By the time we meet her, Sam’s teenage rebellion has taken on a literal edge, as she and her childhood best friend (the palace groundskeeper’s son) spend their free time performing anti-monarchist pop-punk in the streets. “People are unhappy out there” she’ll plead to her mother, referring to some kind of social unrest the movie doesn’t have the time, money, or courage to explore any further despite the fact that it’s the bedrock of its heroine’s journey. What seems poised to become a Disney princess story for a generation that’s being raised into protest quickly pivots into… something much worse.
That summer school Sam is forced to go to with a breakfast club of other hyper-privileged delinquents? It turns out that it’s a top-secret training program for an elite crime-fighting force of supernaturally gifted youngsters because — and I quote — “there’s a special gene exclusive to second-borns of royal bloodlines.” What? Just… what? Also how? Wouldn’t that confer a certain kind of divine right to monarchies across the world? And on a similar note… huh?
Every middle and youngest child around the world has moments when they feel at a loss for attention and/or purpose, but this seems like a bit of a stretch. There’s something to the idea that being a princess isn’t a responsible fantasy to promote in such financially stratified times — that fighting for change behind the scenes offers a different and more socially conscious way to be special — but “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” is too small for such big ideas. Instead, it feels like a very long walk to a cut-rate “Kingsman” that spends much of its time hopping from one underfunded training sequence to another while a shadowy villain patiently bides his time in the background.
Led by a gay professor with a gluten allergy (Skylar Astin) who functions like a cross between Nick Fury, Professor X, and “Yo, Teach!,” Sam’s crash course in superpowers is clearly pulled together on a public school budget (there’s ample room for less expensive kids entertainment, but a Marvel-inflected movie about the world’s richest teenagers may not have been the best premise for a project that looks like it was expensed to Disney on a single receipt). In typical genre fashion, most of the kids have abilities that reveal their inner natures. Kind of. Olivia Deeble plays a vain, social-media-obsessed influencer who turns invisible, Niles Fitch plays a cocky charmer who discovers that his voice makes people do his bidding, Isabella Blake-Thomas plays an overly agreeable sort who picks up the powers of those around her, Faly Rakotohavana plays an introvert who can talk to insects(?), and Sam… has super senses? Because she can smell a better future for her country?
It all feels like the work of a fast-tracked first draft, and the character details are as tossed off as the interminable training exercises through which Professor Marrow leads his new class. These are nice kids, and the actors embodying them are charismatic enough, but the DIY aesthetic doesn’t mix with the blockbuster scale, and it’s hard to imagine even the youngest and most eager of second-born kids buying into this world for long enough to see it threatened. The occasional fights overachieve with their choreography, and one late twist lands well enough to compensate for a small portion of the wild script contrivances that lead Sam and her friends to use their powers for good, but the film’s various through-lines are far too frayed by the time Mastro tries to knot them together, and the whole thing ends with a shrug.
In fact, “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” is such a sad baby chimera of second-wave digital content that the mere act of reviewing it feels unnecessarily hostile — an in-depth analysis of this thing wouldn’t be any more helpful to most parents than a quick thumbs-down and a promise that it’s totally sexless (which it is). At the end of the day, this film doesn’t warrant the kind of karmic beatdown that critics have heroically administered to several other, more pervasive kid-friendly movies in recent years (“The Lion King” remake comes to mind), and dismantling it for sport feels an awful lot like chucking away a child’s brand new toy just because you thought they deserved better.
But even if this might be a semi-effective babysitter for 95 minutes, even if Mastro seems to have been hamstrung by a woeful lack of resources, and even if none of the blame should be laid at the feet of her super-emotive teen cast (every member of which is one “Euphoria” arc away from breaking out into full-blown stardom), the fact remains that it’s worth taking the temperature of the first original features that Disney is adding to its streaming platform, if only to keep tabs on what the company intends to offers subscribers in between aborted tentpoles and new seasons of “The Mandalorian.” Judging by the likes of “Noelle,” “Lady and the Tramp,” and this latest whiff, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
“Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday, September 25.