Disney Plus’ newest original movie sounds like the perfect amalgamation of everything a kid could want: spies, superpowers, and secret societies, with princesses added on for spice. Secret Society of Second-Born Royals follows in the footsteps of kid-tailored superhero movies like Sky High and Spy Kids, putting the early-teen characters at the center of the adventure, and leaning into the cartoonish superpowers.
The movie is full of the best bits of the kid-adventure genre — exciting and weird powers! Cool training montages! Intriguing plot! — but when it brings in heavier emotional stakes, the elements don’t quite gel.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Secret Society of Second-Born Royals.]
The premise of director Anna Mastro’s movie is simpler than the wordy title suggests: rebellious second-born Princess Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) learns she has super-heightened senses. She and several other second-born royals are summoned by a mysterious organization dedicated to keeping peace around the world, and led by Sam’s mother, Catherine (Élodie Yung). As the coronation of her older sister Eleanor (Ashley Liao), looms on the horizon, Sam learns to put her powers to the test.
The first half-hour or so of Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is exhilarating. The best part of the “kids with cool abilities” genre is often the beginning, as the characters meet each other and figure out who they are and what they’re doing. The filmmakers do a great job of simultaneously introducing Sam and her powers. Her super-senses manifest after she sneaks out of a royal function and into a club. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of noise and sensations at the concert, she panics, pulls a fire alarm, and winds up in jail. That also lands her in summer school, which she quickly learns is a cover-up for the secret society.
The rest of the kids in Secret Society of Second-Born Royals are all unique in personality and powers. The society’s trainer, Professor James Morrow (Skylar Astin), tosses the five recruits into a laser obstacle course to see what they can do. It’s a fun sequence to make their powers manifest — and their loud personalities clash. Social-media-obsessed Princess Roxanna (Olivia Deeble) has the most traditional power: she can turn invisible. But for someone so public-facing and into her own image, that alone offers a delicious juxtaposition. The rest of the reveals are just as fun, and each of the royals have different struggles with their powers and personalities.
Kid-friendly action movies don’t always get the budget to make them into grand spectacles. Disney Channel Original movies play up fantasies of kids saving the world, using reality-bending logic to set up kid-centric action, but usually without much finesse in the special effects or production design. Secret Society of Second-Born Royals keeps the wacky moments, but with more polish, dressing up kid-heightened fantasies in a slightly more serious veneer. The underground sanctum that Catherine shows Sam, for instance, feels more like something out of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie than like the Toontown attraction it could be. It elevates the young protagonists to be just as important as their older counterparts — but also still indulges in fun moments, like Roxana being swept up into the air while clinging to a treadmill during training.
While the setup is fun and dynamic, Secret Society of Second-Born Royals falls into familiar pitfalls: after the characters are introduced and the powers revealed, Mastro and writers Alex Litvak and Andrew Green can’t quite pull all those working parts into a satisfying climax and conclusion. The conflict, which involves a mysterious escaped criminal with a grand scheme, is exciting and full of plot twists. But the movie’s downfall comes from trying to juggle too many emotional arcs and relationships, while not laying enough groundwork for them to feel fulfilling.
Sam goes from being prickly with her new friends to being willing to do anything for them, over the space of one training montage… where they’re all pretty much training individually, since their powers don’t really lend themselves to teamwork. Sam’s normal, non-royal best friend Mike (Noah Lomax) is introduced at the very beginning, but disappears midway through the movie. He returns just to be angry at her. The relationship that gets sidelined the most — and the one the writers try to pin the emotional climax on — is between Sam and Eleanor, who barely interact, beyond Sam being annoyed at her older sister’s existence.
The frustrating thing is that if the filmmakers had picked any one of these relationships and focused on developing it, they could’ve weaved a fulfilling emotional arc into the high-stakes plot. Spy Kids worked well because it focused on one family. Sky High pulled off a larger cast, but tied all of the hero’s relationships specifically to his own character arc. What made those movies so special wasn’t just the indulgence in kid fantasies, the wacky superpowers and hijinks, or its young heroes saving the world: it was the fact that the filmmakers managed to thread in a satisfying emotional core.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals’ many relationships feel rushed, simply because they are so separated and spread out. The movie is a fun time, an exciting showcase of superpowers and high-stakes action, but it also could be so much more.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is available to stream on Disney Plus.