‘Secret Society of Second-Born Royals’ Assembles a Team of Young Monarchs for a Low-Budget Saga
Disney continues its flirtation with monarchs in the exhaustingly titled “Secret Society of Second-Born Royals.” It’s a typical origin story movie, this time combining an ongoing obsession with princesses, princes, queens and castles with the idea of superhero teams. A bit of teen boredom is thrown in as well. More of a throwaway distraction than a fully-realized epic, it harkens back to the kind of material you would see more often on the Disney Channel.
The movie is set in Illyria, an imaginary country that is the smallest nation in Europe, although its inhabitants apparently all sound like Americans. It’s ruled by a monarchy headed by Queen Catherine (Elodie Yung), who has two daughters, Eleanor (Ashley Liao), who has been tapped to take over the throne, and Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), who finds the whole idea of being a princess quite boring and meaningless (as, no doubt, do some of the commoners). Sam spends her days with friend Mike (Noah Lomax) trying to find gigs for their two-person band, while also grappling with heightened senses that let her hear and perceive almost everything around her. They even perform anti-monarchist jams in public. But with Eleanor’s coronation coming up, Sam is sent to a special class that seems to be for troublemakers. It turns out to be a special team led by Professor James Morrow (Skylar Astin), who trains “second-born royals” who have superpowers. Joining Sam are Tuma (Niles Fitch), who has the ability to talk people into doing anything, January (Isabella Blake-Thomas), who can absorb others powers with a mere touch, Roxana (Olivia Deeble), born with the power to become invisible, and Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana), who has the ability to control insects. As their training begins, a threat arrives (inevitably). Inmate 34 (Greg Bryk), has escaped from an Illyrian prison and is determined to ruin the coronation.
“Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” functions as an attempt at setting up a small-scale franchise to justify your monthly Disney Plus subscription fee. However, director Anna Mastro and Disney deserve credit for keeping the cast diverse. Even when it’s throwaway entertainment, at least the company is making sure to add progressive touches. The superhero team of the title features no one dominating ethnicity, and even Professor James Morrow slyly identifies as gay when he introduces himself. If young Disney audiences are expected to be mindlessly distracted by movies like this, at least they’ll get a bit of inclusivity snuck in.
But in returning to the movie itself, there’s not much to discuss about “Secret Society.” It follows a teen movie beat sheet. Sam is a rebellious royal with superpowers and most of the movie is spent watching her and the team training, which means dodging lasers in a simulation room, learning archery and messing around with their various powers. Except for poor Matteo, who is already socially awkward and feels left out because his power consists of guiding butterflies. One can sense writers Andrew Green and Alex Litvak going down the list of superpowers that haven’t been overkilled yet. Roxana and January are the only ones with abilities that could land them a spot with the X-Men. Sam’s abilities sound like what makes Dr. Dre such a great music producer and Tuma would make a great salesman or politician with his power.
Illyria also feels like a rather stale kingdom. We never tour its streets or capitol. Sam has a scene singing a protest song in public, but there’s barely anyone around. Are Illyrians happy with their monarchy? Does Illyria have a secret police like Iran’s Savak under the Shah? When Eleanor talks about her future plans, she boasts about wanting to give Illyrians the choice of having a parliament alongside the monarchy, you know, like England or Spain. Do Illyrians even want that? We wouldn’t know because the movie never goes outside of Professor Morrow’s training academy. There’s never a sense that the Secret Society truly serves the people because their only real threat is Inmate 34. Later on they get called to try and stop a jewel theft, so it’s not like they hit the streets to protect the peasants from crime. Kings and queens are in right now, especially after the massive success of “Black Panther.” But that was a grand action spectacle with style and brains, with a villain challenging Wakanda to live up to its creeds and embark on world revolution. The royals in this movie could be any bored teens who get to do something fun. In addition, why do only second-born royals get powers and how? There could have been more humor to this whole concept, we even get a hint of it when Sam tours a weapons room with portraits of other warrior royals, and above a big gun is a portrait of Prince Harry.
“Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” opens and closes in a flash. It’s a quick 1hour and 36 minutes of good young actors performing in an exercise of pure movie commerce. What we get is just a premise with no greater aim than to elicit a chuckle or two. In the end, it’s a game of thrones with few royal payoffs.
“Secret Society of Second-Born Royals” begins streaming Sept. 25 on Disney+.