Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is the odd one out in the Madrigal family: the only one of many cousins, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles not to have been granted a magical talent by her sentient “Casita” and the ever-burning candle that gave her grandmother (María Cecilia Botero/Olga Merediz) a refuge many years ago. When the candle starts to flicker out and the Casita begins to crumble, Mirabel determines to prove her worth to the family by finding out why it is happening, before the magic is lost forever.
So Disney was able to sneak one in before the end of the year to add to my list then. #60 in the list of Disney Animation offerings promised to be one of the most diverse and colourful yet, and was always bound to capture my attention otherwise owing to the involvement of one Lin-Manual Miranda, whose work on Moana was one of the key reasons that film was the enormous success that it was (even now I hear “We Know The Way” starting in my head). And yet, I am unfortunately unable to give the same kind of stirring recommendation for Encanto as I was able to give the Disney’s Pacific princess (or daughter of the chief, whatever): Encanto is very good on a number of different levels, but I think also fundamentally unsatisfying as well.
What’s the good? There’s so much I fear I might find my opinion changing as I write this review, but we’ll start with the general look, feel and splendor that is Encanto. It’s a film that grabs a tight hold of its Latino influences and never lets them go even for an instant: in its cast, its visuals, its music, its general themes and hints of backstory. This is the latest example of the studio’s willingness to be more than just pale white princesses voiced by the latest pale white comedian to make a name for themselves; where Raya And The Last Dragon erred towards Asia, Encanto errs to the other side of the Pacific. The result is a magnificent blend of the kind of culture that Hollywood has for too long eschewed, and which found manifestation earlier this year in In The Heights. It’s a welcome addition to the canon for that reason alone really, with it never ceasing to amaze how long it took for people at the top of the industry to realise that this kind of diversity has appeal outside of the specific demographic that is being depicted (fantastically).
And that cast, headed by Beatriz but featuring a slew of great actors and singers from the Latino community, is doing really great work. Beatriz certainly has an “in” now I suppose, which is great to see after watching her first hit the relative big time in Brooklyn 99, and she pours a lot of emotion into her Mirabel here, a young girl who is fundamentally different than her family, and struggles to deal with that. There’s a lot of different ways that you could look into it in terms of themes or allusions, but for me it was just straight-up adolescent ennui and awkwardness, put against the perception of an extraordinary family, being showcased in a magical setting.
And she’s not alone. There’s a host of great talents, many of them from a comedic background, who add to Encanto wonderfully. Stand-outs include John Leguizamo as Mirabel’s prophecy seeing uncle Bruno, Ravi-Cabot Conyers as a younger cousin about to get his powers and Diane Guerrero as the overly-perfect older sister. A recurring theme for every character is the weight of hidden burdens – to be the best, to do what they need to do for the family, to not let the negative aspects of their magical talents drag others down – and how the pressure from family members can only add to that burden unnecessarily. The cast is great, both speaking and singing, with comedy chops that help keep things rolling along (a dinner scene mixed with a botched proposal is a real stand-out in that regard).
But where Encanto falls down is in the way it unfolds, especially when we hit the third act and the crisis point. I’m not sure how else to put it other than to say that the film becomes a tad insubstantial in what it is trying to get across, a consequence of the choice perhaps to forgo an antagonist force in favour of something more ethereal. This is in line with some of the backstory, where the Madrigal family comes to live in this hidden valley owing to a literally faceless band of raiders, but a theme of internal displacement, something common enough in parts of South ad Central America, does not get explored too much really.
Mirabel sets out to stop the family home from falling apart and the family itself from losing their magic: how she can go about doing this takes a while to become clear, as we go through a number of pivotal plot points just a bit too quickly. There’s the return of a long lost relative; the need for two enemies in the family to fashion a reconciliation; a scheming matriarch who has lost sight of her role; and let’s not leave out that botched proposal, an unrequited love, a horde of animals and all else besides. In other words Encanto seems flush with good ideas but can’t settle on which of them deserve to be a big part of the finale and which ones should be set aside, and what it comes up with in terms of a finale is frustratingly obtuse while being easily predictable when parsed down to the bare bones.
Compare to, as I’ve already brought it up, Moana. That was a film with similar themes, but I think a bit better with the inclusion of clear antagonist characters and a more fully-formed third act, that had a goal for the characters with clear objectives. Even if it involved a Macguffin, it still had the capacity for a twist ending involving the villain, that tied back into the larger themes of reconciliation with who you are. Encanto lacks the kind of focus that an antagonist character tends to bring, and its last 40 or so minutes – which, for the record, makes the film drag a little bit – has that aimless sort of quality as we meander from plot point to plot point, the film taking its sweet time with that succession of reconciliations. There is an ambition in story-telling terms there that does deserve some consideration for sure, but for me didn’t work all that well in the execution. The film needed more in the way of conflict, more bad-minded characters, more human obstacles to Mirabel other than her well-meaning but misguided abuela, so that all of the hugs at the end mean more.
But Encanto’s strengths in other departments, some already mentioned, help to make up for these shortfalls. You don’t really need me to tell you that it looks great, with the animation for the sentient house probably the most eye-catching thing. But the aspect to really talk about to a greater extent is the music, sorely lacking from Raya And Thr Last Dragon. There isn’t a misstep in that department: the bouncy getting-the-exposition-out-of-the-way energy of the opening “The Family Madrigal”; the quieter, emotionally resonant “Waiting On A Miracle”; an ode to unseen stress in the unexpectedly affecting “Surface Pressure”; the ensemble excellence of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”, the closest the film gets to a villain song; the powerful “What Else Can I Do?” duet; and the finale coming together of “All Of You”. Encanto lacks the kind of song, Let It Go-like, to rocket up the charts, but it’s a very accomplished musical, which should probably come as no surprise with Miranda taking part. The larger score, from Germaine Franco (who was involved in the somewhat similar Coco) is also a triumph, inventive, colourful and impossible to not nod your head along to.
Encanto slots neatly into the upper-mid table of Disney Animation, a studio still operating at least partially in the shadow of Frozen and still in the midst of what may be an awkward transition to an embrace of greater diversity. This film, not unlike Raya And The Last Dragon, is probably not going to resonate for too long in comparison to the likes of Frozen, or even Moana. This will be down to its structural problems as it struggles with the weight of all of its characters and all that it wants to say, and some not insubstantial pacing issues. But it does have great performances, excellent music, positive messages and that Disney feel that insures the studio is never likely to make a flop ever again, not really. Moreover, it is another example of the Kings of Hollywood opening themselves up to new markets, new influences and new demographics, and that is never going to be an unworthy exercise. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).