What’s new, everyone? I’ve finally got around to watching Encanto, the 60th animated movie to come out of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which started streaming on Disney+ on December 24 after having released theatrically on November 24. A musical with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also has a Story By credit), it takes us to a secluded village up in the mountains of Colombia, where the locals get to enjoy idyllic lives supplemented by a huge family known as the Madrigals. Thanks to the power of a magical candle, they live in an enchanted house that they call Casita and each relative has a special ability ranging from super-strength and clairvoyance to plant manipulation and healing injuries via magic-infused food. That is, each relative except for the story’s young protagonist, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, In the Heights), whose gift never blossomed.
Directed by Byron Howard (part of directing duos for Bolt, Tangled, and Zootopia) and Jared Bush (screenwriter for Moana and Zootopia), co-directed by Charisse Castro Smith, and written by Smith and Bush, Encanto is a visually vibrant movie that I desperately want to love as much as everyone else seems to be. However, simplistic writing and a mostly underwhelming soundtrack prevent the film from becoming a truly riveting experience for me.
Even when Encanto started, I had issues with its uneven pacing, which shows through as the first act devotes itself to setting up the worldbuilding with the Madrigals, their unique powers, and the contributions they make to their village. I got more invested once the plot eventually kicked off in the second act by giving Mirabel the goal of saving her family’s magic from dying out under mysterious circumstances. As things progressed, though, there were several moments where it felt like the script was underwritten, whether it’s the nebulous rules of the magic, the superficial plot turns that could have been tweaked to create a more complex narrative, or the portrayal of Madrigal matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botera) that came off as thinly developed and unsatisfactory (the fact that she spends an unsettlingly large amount of time gaslighting Mirabel, something which the movie glosses over, doesn’t make her any more endearing to me).
While I appreciate the themes of the love that comes from mending fractured relationships with your kin and the generational trauma that comes from setting out to hypercritically mold your loved ones to meet your unrealistic expectations (though the latter theme could have been explored much more deeply), I need well-rounded, emotionally layered writing to make the journey worth it, e.g. the kind of writing that makes up Coco and Moana. Even Luca, as basic as it is, grabs my heart. I initially criticized it for being a Pixar flick that was satisfied with being a straightforward family film and nothing more, but I’ve increasingly admired it as of late for being a movie that wants to target kids and succeeds at doing so with a story that’s actually quite charming in its simplicity. Unfortunately, the emotions that course through me while watching the movies that I just listed off never genuinely arise during Encanto.
As for the soundtrack, I’m sad to say that it pales by comparison to Miranda’s brilliant artistry in Moana and Hamilton. “Surface Pressure,” “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” and “Colombia, Mi Encanto” are my personal standouts, but I didn’t leave the movie with an eager desire to stream them on Spotify. Instead, I put on “My Shot.” Granted, I realize how unfair it is to put Miranda up on a pedestal and expect every one of his creations to be the musical manifestation of heaven, but it doesn’t diminish the bewilderment I felt at “You’re Welcome” and “You’ll Be Back” playing through my head during Encanto rather than being fully wrapped up in the songs. As a general observation, 2021 was a busy year for Miranda. Aside from Encanto, it consisted of the Jon M. Chu-directed film adaptation of his Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights, the Netflix animated movie Vivo that’s accompanied by his tracks and features him as the voice of a kinkajou who’s mad about music, and the Netflix musical biopic tick, tick… BOOM! that marks his feature directorial debut and stars Andrew Garfield as late Rentcomposer Jonathan Larson. I haven’t been able to see those movies yet, but hopefully I’ll have a better time with them than I did with Encanto.
The film does have its pros: the gorgeously resplendent animation; the winsome anthropomorphism of the Madrigal Casita; the liveliness of the Madrigals that makes this massive family feel like it really does exist, though the story can spread itself thin trying to juggle such a broad supporting roster; the depiction of everyone having a variety of skin tones ranging from dark enough to look Black to light enough to pass as white, which is welcome aspect after the colorism in In the Heights; the thematic impact of the displacement that the Madrigals have endured and its connection to the real-life displacement in Columbia, which is broken down in far more detail in an article that you can click on at the bottom of this review; and the vocal performances, which include the ever-ubiquitous Alan Tudyk in yet another animal cameo as Pico, a clueless toucan. I particularly loved John Leguizamo’s turn as Bruno, the soothsayer uncle who inexplicably vanished years ago and whose visions, which apparently leaned heavily toward negative happenings, led his kindred to blame him for the ill-omened events in their lives. I knew he was in the cast ahead of watching the movie, so I was expecting him to sound closer to the exaggeration he brings to Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age series. But he delivered much more of a toned-down and earnest performance that ended up befitting Bruno. I also like the relatability that’s at work in regard to Mirabel and Bruno, both of whom are the outcasts amongst the Madrigals. Their flesh and blood views them as oddballs who haven’t meshed with the rest of the family dynamic because of their gifts—one because of her lack of a gift, the other because of his inauspicious forecasts. This serves to make not only Mirabel and Bruno sympathetic, but also the oddballs they represent in our own families.
I’ve been hearing criticism towards the movie’s lack of a clear villain for the heroes to defeat. While I do believe Alma is a bit of an antagonist, I think the true “villain” is an existential one: the pressure that has been put on the Madrigals to maintain the image of familial perfection and the facade of never letting anything get under their skin or break them at their core, which has been slowly and inevitably tearing open cracks within their unit. I’m always up for a bad guy to root against, whether they’re as compellingly complex as Raya and the Last Dragon’s Namaari or as entertainingly nasty as Luca’s Ercole Visconti. But I’m equally into stories that prove intangible and neutral forces of the world can be just as difficult and necessary to overcome as the living and breathing enemies who have the power to inflict pain and suffering on everyone around them.
Shifting this review away from the narrative itself, I struggle with Disney’s choice to assign two white guys as the main directors and the Latinx creative as a co-director. This has already occurred across the Disney-Pixar divide for Coco, which Lee Unkrich directed and Adrian Molina co-directed, and Soul, which Pete Doctor directed and Kemp Powers co-directed. I realize these studios are coming from the standpoint of wanting their veterans to helm their projects and ensure that everything runs smoothly. But isn’t it high time for them to let their BIPOC artists take the wheel and tell their own stories? Molina and Powers weren’t even eligible for accepting their respective Oscar wins on grounds of their co-director credits sidelining them—the literal manifestation of white people bagging the accolades while glossing over the significant accomplishments of their marginalized colleagues. Thankfully, I can point to an upcoming movie that doesn’t run along this track: Pixar’s Turning Red, which is currently set to stream on Disney+ in the US on March 11, 2022, and is directed by Domee Shi, director of the Oscar-winning Pixar short film Bao. Featuring an Asian cast, helmed by an Asian director, and being the first Pixar movie to feature a sole woman director, Turning Red is something for which I’m crossing my fingers in regard to proper representation.
Overall, I wish I could connect with Encanto as much as the majority of the audience is. I reveled in its weighty themes and dazzling animation, but the soundtrack and the script need polishing. Even while typing out this review, I find myself thinking back to Moana and Coco, both of which I enjoyed markedly more and would recommend over Encanto.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 50/100