Distractingly and ironically cheap given its toff teeny-bopper characters, The Secret Society of Second Born Royals is a low-rent X-Men knockoff that’s dull for all the family.
There are two things that always come up in discussions of Disney’s increasing monopolization of the entertainment industry – superheroes and money. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Mouse House’s still fledgling streaming platform, Disney+, only recently set an alarming precedent by dumping its live-action remake of Mulan – all the new aspects of which were styled as, all together now, a kind of Wuxia-lite superhero origin story – for a premium price on top of the usual subscription fee. These topics can’t help but be brought up again in the case of the platform’s latest original offering, The Secret Society of Second Born Royals, which is about toff teeny-boppers discovering they have superpowers and seems to have been made for almost no money at all.
The overwhelming cheapness of this enterprise is worth mentioning since it reiterates what several elements of the production – including a sloppy script by Austin Winsberg, Alex Litvak, and Andrew Green, and uninspired direction by Anna Mastro – make abundantly clear elsewhere: Nobody cared enough about this film to figure out who its target audience even was, much less how best to cater to it. Being produced by the Disney Channel suggests a much younger slant than even Disney’s other recent original streamers like Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan, but certain plot elements, including murder, bombs, and perplexing political sentiments, seem pitched at a crowd old enough to see through its nonsense.
This underlying confusion is baked into the premise, which postures as if it’s going to be a subversion of the age-old Disney princess story by instead being a paint-by-numbers superhero origin story that happens to be about princesses. The long-awaited redo of the X-Men this is not, though, and it takes a while to get into that stuff anyway. First, we have to meet our heroine, Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), second in line to the crown of Illyria, a fictional European country. Her perfect older sister Eleanor (Ashley Liao) is due to succeed their widowed queen mother (Élodie Yung) at any moment, which is just as well, since Sam isn’t much for royal duties anyway, and would much prefer to take to the streets with her blue-collar bestie and perform weak anti-monarchist pop-punk for a crowd who’re intimated to be deeply disillusioned with the current political system – not that the film itself ever shows us this, obviously.
Sam is promptly spirited away to a summer school with a group of other Breakfast Club-style delinquents, all of whom are second-born royals, and the title is starting to make sense now, isn’t it? I suppose it’s only right that neglected middle children get their share of the limelight, but building a feature-film on the idea that they all – those from royal bloodlines, anyway – have latent superpowers feels a bit like building one on the idea that all men under five-foot-six are great military strategists. Nevertheless, the summer school is really a covert training camp for these underappreciated royals, designed to train them on how to facilitate real change in secret while their siblings smile and wave for the crowds. Cue training sequences – lots and lots of training sequences.
Sam and her contemporaries all have powers that’re extensions of their personalities, except for Sam herself, curiously enough, who has super senses, which mostly manifests as her being able to smell what someone ate for lunch two days prior. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to tell us about her, but no matter, since everyone else’s powers are doubly obvious metaphors just to make sure. Princess Roxana (Olivia Deeble) is a vain social media influencer who thrives on attention, so her superpower is turning invisible! Tuma (Niles Fitch) is a pampered charmer whose superpower is everyone having to do exactly what he says! January (Isabella Blake-Thomas) is a hyper-agreeable teacher’s pet type whose superpower is borrowing everyone else’s superpowers! And Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana) is an introverted loser with no friends who is always surrounded by flies because he smells of sh*t! Or he can control them, I guess – either way, probably not the best power for the social outcast to have.
In charge of teaching these kids is Professor Morrow (Skylar Astin), who introduces himself as being gay and allergic to gluten and never becomes more interesting than that. In truth, the rest of the kids never quite become more than their respective gimmicks, either, which is a shame since the cast is decently charismatic. That’s why the film looking and feeling so cheap smacks of neglect rather than deliberate DIY charm – in one training sequence after another, The Secret Society of Second Born Royals seems in desperate search of a bigger budget to flex, and in the few scenes of action, there’s enough to the choreography that you can’t help but wonder what a version of the film that got that budget might have looked like.
This is as good a time as any to mention that I didn’t even dislike this film; it didn’t wind me up in any way beyond its obviousness and the irony that it, itself, is the neglected middle child of Disney’s digital output, the gangly, awkward little sister of something like Mulan. But it’s worth making fun of it regardless since it’s being shamelessly served up as little more than a feature-length babysitter for struggling parents during a pandemic, and these spritely young actors deserved more than that. So, two stars, but an accusatory finger pointed at whoever at Disney starved this film of all the resources and attention that might have resulted in it being better.