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Welcome again, everybody! As winter looms, what better way to brighten up these gloomy afternoons than with the newest Disney feature? In this case, that happens to be the appropriately lush Encanto, which is the 60th film in the canon and marks the studio’s first return to South America in more than twenty years. The project was led by directorial duo Byron Howard and Jared Bush from Zootopia (2016), joined by co-director and writer Charise Castro Smith and featuring original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Interestingly, Encanto’s score was created by Germaine Franco, who I believe is the first female composer for a Disney canon film (Kristen Anderson-Lopez was a songwriter on the Frozen films, but their scores were composed by Christophe Beck).
News of what would become Encanto first appeared around late 2016, when Miranda revealed that John Lasseter had presented a rough idea for the film to himself and Byron Howard during the promotion of Moana. Work was in its earliest stages at that point, but little more seems to have been revealed until just last year, with Bush and Smith being announced as additional directors and the setting confirmed as Colombia. I usually keep tabs on upcoming Disney projects and honestly, I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about this until this year, so the production must have been kept under wraps on purpose.
At any rate, Disney were long overdue another foray into South American culture, especially since their other adventures down there were so cartoonish. This time around, we have a diverse and charming family of Colombians to get to know, so props to Disney for the variety of character designs on offer here. Representation matters! Our protagonist, Mirabel Madrigal, is played with great fervour by Stephanie Beatriz, but there’s a whole heap of other Madrigals to keep track of here besides her. Mirabel’s abuela, Alma (played by María Cecilia Botero and sung by Olga Merediz) has three children, Bruno, Julieta and Pepa, who are played by John Leguizamo, Angie Cepeda and Carolina Gaitán, respectively. Julieta is Mirabel’s mother, married to Agustín (Wilmer Valderrama), and Mirabel is the youngest of their three children, the elder two being her sisters Isabela (Diane Guerro) and Luisa (Jessica Darrow). Her aunt Pepa is married to Félix (Mauro Castillo) and they, too, have three children – seems to be a running theme in this family! The eldest of Mirabel’s cousins is Dolores (Adassa), followed by brothers Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz) and little Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers). Naturally, Alan Tudyk is also here for his usual cameo – this time as a toucan – and Colombian musician Maluma plays a small part as Isabela’s fiancé, Mariano. I must admit that after just one viewing, I’m having trouble keeping everybody’s names and relationships straight (I had the same problem with Meet the Robinsons), but perhaps I’m just getting old!
Despite the relative lack of info on this one before its release, I’ve been looking forward to it for months; I’m really loving Disney’s new push for greater diversity in their stories! I hadn’t been back to the cinema I saw this at since I watched Onward there in March 2020, so I felt like it was time I patronised it again. In fact, Encanto is only my fourth cinema outing overall since the pandemic began, and my first since Raya back in May – I feel bad, as the theatres clearly need the support. Just like those other times, the place was again almost deserted, with only two other people in my screening of Encanto. Nice as it is not to have to worry about talking, texting or crunching, I do miss the communal atmosphere a good film experience brings with it.
Before the main event, an excellent short called Far From the Tree was played, telling the tale of a family of raccoons learning how to get by (and get along) in a dangerous world. This is the kind of thing Disney does best, using animals to teach a moral lesson like an Aesop’s fable, and the themes of this one tied in nicely with those of Encanto. The central raccoon learns from its experience with its own parents, so that when it has a child of its own, it is able to break the destructive cycle they had been caught in and prevents the intergenerational trauma from continuing. (In fact, there are some reviewers I’ve seen who feel the short handled this theme better than the film did, but I digress.) For my part, I loved that it was in 2D animation, as it gives me renewed hope of maybe seeing a feature done in it down the line – it’s been ten years now since Winnie the Pooh and I still deeply miss that style.
Encanto itself is a delight, once again celebrating family as so many modern Disney films have been doing. It pretty much goes without saying, but it’s very colourful and filled with catchy songs – which I suppose is to be expected when you’ve got Lin-Manuel Miranda on board. We Don’t Talk About Bruno is perhaps the best of them with its carefully interwoven melodies and I had a lot of fun with Jessica Darrow’s Surface Pressure, but The Family Madrigal is the one I found myself humming as I left. I’m not sure whether these will have the same mainstream crossover appeal as the stuff from Frozen did, but then Encanto is probably better off without the backlash from that crazy kind of success. Charise Castro Smith’s score is also as wonderfully vibrant and evocative as the setting, and I liked that the credits this time included a breakdown of thanks for all the individual musicians in different sections of the orchestra.
Mirabel Madrigal is a typical loving, selfless, slightly clumsy Disney heroine, wondering where she fits into her amazing family. It may not be anything too revolutionary but, after all, Disney usually handle this type of character very well and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Seeing such a thoroughly ordinary heroine as Mirabel (and the first in the canon to wear glasses!) feels like the perfect thing for younger generations who’ve been burnt out with being told they’re “special” all their lives, only to feel frustrated and anxious about themselves for not living up to that label as they grow up. Mirabel demonstrates that being a so-called “normal” person is more than enough, and that you don’t need to have a special talent or skill to be valued. Love, the film shows us, should not be conditional, a lesson Mirabel’s abuela must learn in order to save the family from ruin.
To be honest, Encanto reminds me a lot of Coco both visually and thematically, which is certainly not a bad thing. Aside from the obvious cultural parallels, the central conflict of both stories is between different generations of families, with younger and older members needing to reach an understanding between one another through better communication. As Rafiki once put it, “The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it, or… learn from it!” There may be plenty to criticise about the film’s handling of its depiction of intergenerational trauma, but however quickly it gets resolved, the conflict between Mirabel and her abuela is, at least, a fundamentally solid core for the drama. Much like Coco’s Imelda, Abuela Alma has been embittered by the trauma of her past, causing her to repress and neglect the newer members of the family as she struggles to move on. She has already proven to be quite a divisive character, judging from online chatter, with many viewers unable to sympathise, but the story does attempt to justify and rectify her behaviour at the end, albeit in a rather rushed way.
Communication is championed throughout Encanto as the standard for families to aim for, with the Madrigals’ predicament making it plain that brushing problems under the rug will only do more harm than good. With no traditional antagonist to speak of (Abuela Alma aside), the stakes are instead set by a constant, insistent pressure, which permeates the entire film; every character feels it, even ones like stoic Alma, perfect Isabela and tough-as-nails Luisa (who gets a great song venting about it). Pressure from society, pressure from the family, pressure from within yourself, always new expectations to meet and nothing is ever good enough. It’s a familiar feeling to countless viewers out there from enumerable cultures the world over, and I applaud Encanto for celebrating the idea of living for yourself, not for others. Trying to be what someone else expects you to be is an exercise in frustration.
I may not be able to relate to the cultural trauma alluded to in Alma’s backstory (which some have interpreted as a reference to La Violencia, although I think the story may be set a little earlier than that), but as someone whose family includes several “We don’t talk about x” members, I can fully relate to the message about family unity, even if that isn’t always as simple in reality. Western families don’t tend to be as tight-knit as some, with American families in particular celebrating independence and encouraging kids to get out on their own as soon as possible, so it’s nice to see a mainstream film like this depicting multiple generations of one family all living under one roof together as an ideal, the way that it is in many other parts of the world.
Honestly, my only major criticism of the film after this first viewing is the awkward pacing. I find this to be an issue for most modern Disney films, but I’m not sure what’s causing it – could it be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen? After a rather frantic opening packed with characters and information, the film eases into a lengthy midsection which runs on for quite a while before the central conflict between Mirabel and Alma occurs. Once it does, everything suddenly speeds up so that within minutes the entire story is resolved – a little too quickly and neatly for my liking – and bang, the film is over. With such a large, intricate cast and so much complicated emotional development to unravel, I feel like Encanto could have benefited from being longer – a comment I also made about Raya a few months ago. Intergenerational trauma is not a subject to be treated lightly, and I’m already seeing a lot of debate online about how easily Alma is forgiven for her mistreatment of Mirabel.
To swing back to the positives, though, I absolutely loved Stephanie Beatriz’s performance as Mirabel, particularly in the scenes she shares with Bruno, who is equally enjoyable thanks to John Leguizamo’s shy and kooky portrayal. Beatriz has a youthful warmth to her voice which suits Mirabel nicely, as well as some terrific comedic timing in certain moments (her exhausted mumbling about Bruno’s stairs to the tune of the Madrigal theme really tickled me). Jessica Darrow’s Luisa was another highlight, with Luisa being an interesting character all round who I would’ve liked to have seen more of; I already feel like the trans community will probably adore her. She’s big, buff and proud of it, but she’s also acknowledged as beautiful, sensitive and feminine, showing that traditionally gendered traits like these need not be mutually exclusive – could she be considered nonbinary?
Also, while the Madrigal clan does centre around a number of hetero couples, it’s true, Mirabel adds her name to the growing list of Disney heroines who don’t have any romantic interests at all, with her story driven instead by a different kind of love that will be more relatable to younger viewers. It’s been refreshing to see Disney moving away from the fairy tale romances in favour of depicting relationships that are more important to real children (although that’s not to say I want them to abandon fairy tales altogether; nobody else does them so well). Again, with more time I would’ve liked to see a bit more screen time for each of the family members (Camilo felt utterly wasted) but perhaps there will be potential for sequels if this does well.
All in all, I had a good time with this one, and I feel like there’s a lot more discussion to be dug out of it in a future film review. So far, Disney’s return to original works has been going swimmingly, with Ralph Breaks the Internet rapidly becoming a distant memory. The 2020s may have been rough on the world so far, but as Disney continues to explore more of planet’s many fascinating cultures, I’m genuinely excited to see where they take us next (come on, Disney, go back to Africa!). Their next feature is tentatively titled Searcher Clade and set for release a year from now, so I’ll look forward to hearing more about that as it progresses. Now, if they could just lay off the live-action remakes…
Before I wrap up this review, I’d just like to offer a quick word on Luca, which I only saw for the first time about a week ago and thus finally caught up on my Pixar again. I don’t really have enough to say about it to make this a full combo review, but I felt like this unfairly maligned film deserved defending. With its summery, laid-back kind of vibe and charming cast of characters, it was just the thing to pick me up during a dark and hectic autumn weekend, so I was surprised to find how much bashing it’s been getting for not being as “grand” or “important” as Pixar’s other stories tend to be.
Many have already talked about the way Pixar is being suffocated under the weight of its own name and branding, but Luca is exactly the kind of smaller, simpler project to prove that they don’t always have to be pushing the envelope – sometimes, a sweet little tale of friendship like this is just what we need. Even with less ambitious material, Pixar still tell their stories with the same care and finesse they’ve come to be known for – the odd Cars 2 notwithstanding – and personally, I think it’s nice not to be hit over the head with an emotional tour-de-force every time. Sure, Luca may not have been anything ground-breaking, but did it need to be? I’m sure Pixar will still be delivering their lavish, hard-hitting tear-jerkers from time to time, but it’s about time fans got off the studio’s back and let them move past the titanic reputations of their earlier films, so that they can be guided into the future by their new leadership. With a talent like Pete Docter at the helm, I’m sure whatever direction they go in next will be well worth seeing.
Thank you so much for reading, everyone! As always, I hope you enjoyed this review, and now I will be attempting to return to The Incredibles, if I can fit it in around working, Christmas shopping and decorating. If that doesn’t work out then there will, at the very least, be a book review before December is over, so I’ll see you again soon either way. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
By http://www.impawards.com/2021/encanto_ver3.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68180643 – credit for Encanto poster
https://www.justjared.com/2021/04/28/disneys-luca-is-a-fish-out-of-water-in-first-trailer-watch/ – credit for Luca poster
https://encanto.fandom.com/wiki/Encanto_Wiki – credit for images
https://www.indiewire.com/2021/11/encanto-review-disney-animated-musical-1234676653/ – Kristen Lopez’s review for Indie Wire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encanto_(film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2953050/ – IMDb profile