Since 2012, I’ve had a tradition with one of my oldest friends. Every Black Friday, we would go to a theater and see the latest Disney movie. It’s a pretty straightforward tradition. There’s no Black Friday shopping, no eating leftovers together, just seeing whatever Disney decided to put out into theaters of Thanksgiving. Sometimes the years are a hit, like in 2013 with Frozen and 2017 with Coco. Other times we had years like 2018 with Ralph Breaks the Internet. This year, as per our nearly decade tradition, Encanto was our target.
I’ve been pretty over Disney for a good long while now and as much as I love our tradition, I can’t deny that part of our trip felt out of obligation. Disney has reached a point with their animated features where they’re recycling their already recycled concepts and ideas into packages that have already been done before. Their animated features have also reached an area of contentment where they don’t really need to see any effort to try to be memorable or stand the test of time. By just having the name Disney on it, it’s almost basically guaranteed to turn a profit no matter how middling a lot of their recent animated fare has been. In the past five years, most of their output has done very little to shake their current formula, and even when their movies do succeed it’s because Pete Doctor is just a great director.
My point is that I didn’t really have much excitement for Encanto. Even after seeing it, I still don’t have much excitement for Encanto. But looking beyond my cynical and frankly morose disposition, it is a fun movie that feels constrained by the fact that it is a movie.
Director: Jared Bush/ Byron Howard
Release Date: November 24, 2021 (Theatrical)
Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is a young Colombian girl who is a member of the Madrigal family. Every member of the Madrigal family has a special power, whether it be her sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) being able to bloom flowers everywhere, or her ostracized uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) who has precognition. Except for Mirabel, who has no powers, and feels abandoned by her family because of it. However, the magical house they live in, which they refer to as Casita, is beginning to fall apart. As a result, the magic that powers their house and the family is starting to fade. So it’s up to Mirabel to try and find a way to save the magic despite having no powers of her own, while also proving to her family that she is useful.
Encanto is a much smaller movie than I think most people expect it to be. There is no grand narrative about saving the world from destruction. Instead, it’s a personal drama about a family where they’re trying to project strength and unity to their community yet they’re barely holding it together. They put themselves on a pedestal of superiority and it’s coming back to bite them since they’re all still humans with their own problems. While we never really know what the deal is with the majority of the family, we learn that Mirabel’s sisters all have their own insecurities, as well as her Abuela (María Cecilia Botero). There is no antagonist to the film and while I would normally cry afoul against that (I miss Disney villains), it works here since the conflict is centered around people who don’t have any animosity towards one another.
That doesn’t mean that the script utilizes the cast perfectly since outside of Mirabel, we only get passing glances at each of the family members and their psychoses. Even then, only four of the 11 family members get attention towards them. Take Louisa (Jessica Darrows), Mirabel’s other sister. Her ability is super-strength and we learn in a song that she shoulders a lot of the burden of the family and is afraid of being seen as weak, so she puts more on her plate because of the expectations associated with her power. That’s some good characterization there! So once she has her song she does nothing for the rest of the film and is a complete afterthought. The same goes for Mirabel’s other sister, Bruno, and Abuela. The rest are all ancillary characters who barely contribute to the film.
I honestly think that there’s more to mine from the characters and the premise than what’s actually in the film itself. This feels like it should be a play that lasts for two-and-a-half hours with an intermission since a lot of its structure is heavily based on theatrical limitations. The majority of the film is set inside of Casita. There’s a family who is all in one central location and the plot centers on them getting ready for a party/proposal, which echoes shows like The Humans and August: Osage County. There are a host of songs sung to express how individual characters feel. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the songs. All of this screams Broadway and an eye for the stage, which is apt when you consider the fact that the writer, Charise Castro Smith, has been a playwright for over a decade and Encanto is her first feature film.
It would also go to explain how the visuals of the film aren’t really anything to write home about. Outside of the musical numbers, there are no grand setpieces to allow the animators to really show their stuff. In fact, why was this even an animated movie? No seriously, all of the components don’t really need to be animated and the script feels like it could equally work in live-action. Don’t go into Encanto expecting a beacon of Disney animation, because it isn’t that. It isn’t awful, and I do think that at this point Disney has scientifically engineered animation that no matter what will be seen as pleasant.
But despite my misgivings about the movie with its premise and scope, I do think there’s a strong moral center to the film. Again, this is a movie about family and by the end, it goes to remind you how important family can be in your life and the importance of family in a communal sense. I thought for a bit that the film was also going to have a message about how talents/superpowers don’t make a person unique, but the film kind of misses the mark on that one in the final scene. Still, two out of three ain’t bad.
What also ain’t bad are Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs. The guy is desperate to get an EGOT at this point and between Encanto, In the Heights and tick, tick…Boom! he most certainly will get it. His songs in Encanto are nice and catchy and capture a lot of his unique lyrical eccentricities. None of the songs are going to join the pantheon of Disney greats, or even reach the heights of his own ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ from Moana, but if we’re going by the technical definition of a musical theatre song where the lyrics help to convey and tell a story, they work. ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ is probably the best song in this regard for just how complex it can get with its structure as well and the numerous vocals overlaying on top of each other.
For as simple of a concept as Encanto may be, it all inevitably comes down to the execution. The cast is enjoyable. The animation, while limited in creativity, is still well done. The core values of the movie are solid, and you really do feel for every main character by the end. There is no reason whatsoever for this film to be held to the same standards as any of the all-time greats, and I would really doubt if anyone even remembers this film by the time Searcher Clade, Disney’s next animated feature, releases. Personally, I’d be surprised if anyone remembers this by the time Turning Red comes out in March. But it’s a fun, straightforward animated movie that made me smile more than a handful of times. It’s also a movie that has a sassy house and a capybara in it. That’s gotta count for something.