2021 | rated PG | starring voices of Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo | directed by Jared Bush, Byrone Howard and Charise Castro Smith | 1 hr 42 mins |
Most Disney animated movies probably have magic of some kind. That’s a given. However, there is usually some world building assigned to where it comes from and rules for how it’s used. In Encanto the magic is just there because it’s there. Magic for the sake of magic. A McGuffin, pure and simple. It makes no sense and ultimately doesn’t mean anything and it’s only purpose is to kick off the plot.
The Madrigal Family was given a miracle in the form of a magic candle, a miracle that brings their house to life, sustains the people of it’s small Columbian village and has blessed each member with a gift. Each member except Maribel (Stephanie Beatrix, Brooklyn 99) whose disastrous miracle ritual has made her the black sheep of the Madrigals. The day her nephew is set to receive his miracle Maribel sees a vision of the magic going out which sends her on a quest through the family past to prevent the miracle from dying and wiping out the town.
Encanto is the latest attempt by Disney to subvert it’s own formula and flog itself for decades of white Disney Princesses. While the film has it’s hands in Columbian culture, the plot is generic enough that it could have been set absolutely anywhere and yielded the same results. The film has the aesthetics and the language down, but a quick look at how Pixar dives into the culture of Luca shows how much more this movie could have done. The detailed animation that brings the house to life is cute, tiles ripple across the counter when it wants to push something toward someone. Mom’s magic cures those with her cooking causing the bloated body parts from dad’s bee stings to pop like balloons down to size. Maribel’s older sister’s magic his strength letting her life houses around the village. Her younger sister’s apparently grace, perfection and good luck but also an ability to conjure up flowers. It’s kind of fuzzy.
The film’s biggest strength is also it’s biggest weakness. All Disney heroes get a call to adventure and set out on a quest making all of these films essentially Road Trip movies. It’s jarring – and refreshing – that at no point in Encanto does Maribel’s journey take her on a literal quest outside of her village seeking the origin behind the magic. Instead keeping the action inside the Madrigal estate for almost the entire film, with Maribel visiting each family member in their own magic tower to piece together the miracle. This gives the movie both a claustrophobic quality that it isn’t progressing and a challenge for itself to liven up each set piece to keep the movie going. I was into it, but I can see how an audience would feel like this movie was stalling in neutral for a very long time. It’s clever and ambitious to keep the same structure and turn it upside down the way Encanto does.
So the movie builds a set piece out of each family members miracles – and musical numbers for each – and sends Maribel on a journey to visit them. The movie is brisk, well pace and entertaining, but broadly comic and lacking much tension. Because the miracle doesn’t seem to have rules or a ticking clock it’s unclear when it’s going to go out and how long Maribel has to save it. Things just get fuzzy a lot in this movie in it’s kid’s-movie desire to jump to the next flashy house trick or musical number.
And speaking of, as with Moana Disney has enlisted lyricist Linn Manuel-Miranda to scribe the lyrics for the film. Like Hamilton, Manuel-Miranda’s tendency to cram a verbose pile of words into the lyrics usually overrides a desire to craft a catchy tune. The opening number spanning the village, “The Family Madrigal” is the most cluttered offender here, requiring Beatrix to chew through pages of exposition about every character’s miracles and make it seem tuneful. The best song in the film doesn’t do that. It’s for my money “Surface Pressure” in which older sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) sings about the burden of her strength. It’s catchy and fun and the only point in the film where Encanto breaks out of Manuel-Miranda’s opera aesthetic and becomes a surreally visual old fashioned Disney animated musical. Then there is “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” which – and I might admittedly be crazy here – sounds like a melodic cousin to “You’re Making Things Up Again” from The Book of Mormon.
The movie moves lightening fast, which is always the sign of a well paced, well edited piece. Encanto’s base premise is so limited and flimsy that it feels like it is going to collapse any minute. When it doesn’t and then ends before it falls apart it feels like something of a minor miracle itself.