Header Ads

Encanto (2021)

It's easily forgotten now that Disney are at the height of their power, but not so long ago Walt Disney Animation Studios was in trouble. After their Renaissance period -which began with 1989's The Little Mermaid- began to lose steam they struggled to recreate the highs of The Lion King and Aladdin. For the first time, they had serious competition in the animated feature field and in comparison to what Pixar and DreamWorks were doing at the time, they were in danger of becoming outdated and irrelevant. For roughly the first decade of the 21st Century, Disney was struggling to find its identity, and while this more experimental period has some interesting results (Treasure Planet, The Emperor's New Groove) they didn't come anywhere near the audience numbers or cultural impact of the studio's biggest films. 

In 2010, with Tangled the studio finally hit home with a mix of the classic Disney formula, CG animation and a more modern sensibility. Frozen followed in 2013 and perfected it even more, and finally delivered a new movie that would be held up alongside those classics. The renaissance fizzled out when they tried to repeat themselves too many times and audiences tired, so lesson learned, modern Disney mixed classic recipe films with less traditional films like Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia. The resurgent WDAS has been on a winning streak ever since, meaning we're effectively in the midst of a 'New Renaissance' or Revival period for the Studio. But does Disney's 60th feature, this year's Encanto continue the streak or does it come off the rails?

Encanto sees Zootopia's Byron Howard and Jared Bush reteaming as directors. Charise Castro Smith who co-wrote the screenplay with Bush is also credited as co-director. Moana's Lin-Manuel Miranda is back to contribute original songs, with Germaine Franco composing the score. The film was originally released theatrically on November 23, 2021, before arriving on Disney Plus shortly after on December 24.

Somewhere in Colombia lies the town of Encanto,  home to the family Madrigal. The family lives in the town's outskirts in a very special magical house (The Cassa Midragial) that gifts each family member who grows up there an individual magical power once they come of age. Various family members have powers including super-strength, shape-shifting, healing and the ability to understand and talk to animals. Every family member that is except for Mirabel, who for some reason was never given a gift. One day, Mirabel discovers that the house's magic is in danger- and powers or no powers, she decides it's up to her to save the day.

The most obvious observation that has to be made is on the quality of the animation itself. It's not exactly news to say that Disney's animators are some of the world's finest artists at the top of their game. But even by their lofty standards, Encanto is on a whole other level. Simply put, it's a visual masterpiece. Truth be told there's probably not a lot to choose between this and their similarly stunning previous 2021 release Raya And The Last Dragonbut they are very different looking films. Encanto is an incredibly colourful film, the screen positively brimming with vibrant life. It's easy to take Disney's character design and animation for granted. Sure, they look a lot like every modern Disney film but that means that they look amazing, and the animation is as good as it gets.

The character animation works in tandem with the writing and the performances of the voice actors to really make each character distinct. With her short curly hair and glasses, Mirabel is a new kind of Disney heroine. She is no princess, no warrior or no chosen one- she's just a normal human girl and she makes up for what she lacks in magic powers in the strength of her character. 

Complete with a pitch-perfect voice performance from Brooklyn Nine Nine's Stephanie Beatriz, she is very much a Disney lead for today. She's their most normal lead ever and will no doubt strike a chord with many, going far beyond the typical Disney Princess demographic. The animators have given her a lot of unique mannerisms and facial expressions that help to make her particularly charming and one-of-a-kind.  Beatriz is also a natural musical performer and does a great job on her songs.

There are several other standout characters worthy of mention. Superstrong sister Luisa has a very atypical body type and buff build, a world away from the svelte Amazon warrior women we often see in pop culture. I would also mention the design of the wayward uncle Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) but... we don't talk about Bruno.

Cassa Madrigal is a beautiful creation and is made to be something of a character in itself. The house communicates with its residents in creative ways, with windows, doors and various household objects used to make itself understood. It gives the house personality in a way that only animation can. It follows in a rich tradition in Disney of inanimate objects brought to life through the magic of animation, A list that includes the sea in Moana, Aladdin's magic carpet- all the way back to the mops in Fantasia.

No Disney film would be complete without at least one lovable animal sidekick or companion, and Encanto definitely delivers. A cast of cute critters feature based on real-life Amazonian/ South American wildlife such as Coati, Tapirs, Jaguars and internet fave capybaras.

Encanto is the second WDAS film to feature original songs from musical icon Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). While on Moana, Miranda was working with musicians from the Pacific region to ensure authenticity, here he's on much more familiar ground culturally. Miranda combines South-American influences and styles with his own sensibilities (such as an occasional hip-hop influence) to great success. 

The film is full of catchy tunes that are sure to stick around in your head long after the credits have rolled. But the music isn't just catchy- much of the storytelling is done through storytelling. Most obviously in the opening number The Family Madrigal, which introduced the audience to the sprawling cast and their special abilities.

It follows in what appears to be something of a trend in modern Disney movies, in that Encanto has no villain. The family dynamic is central to the story, with the formidable grandmother (known to Latino and Hispanic families as Abuela) ruling over as the matriarch. Inter-family tensions are the real driver of the plot, with Mirabel's inferiority complex a major factor. Mirabel's close relationship with her younger cousins is also depicted in a very sweet and touching way. Her pep-talk with anxious cousin Antonio- which takes place under a bed- is one particularly cute moment.

The threat facing the family is more abstract than a traditional villain. Their family is very loving, but not without its problems. It's honest about the fact that even when we try our best, we can inadvertently hurt those we love the most, Technically, the film never leaves the valley, because some doors in the house have magical properties leading to rooms that are much larger on the inside, Tardis style (or are they portals to another place like in Howl's Moving Castle?). Mirabel's quest effectively only takes her deeper inside the house.

As a result, the stakes in the film are that much more personal. It's not a case of trying to save the world or even the whole town. Keeping the family together is their simple goal. This is a much more relatable idea than endless world-in-peril plots can hope for.

With any modern narrative that takes place within a specific culture, the pressure is high not to mess it up. The creative team at WDAS undertook extensive research, including visits to the locations that inspired the film. The film's cast consists almost entirely of actors of Latina descent (the exception being WDAS regular good luck charm Alan Tudyk, who voices a Toucan). 

Combined with screenwriter/co-director Castro Smith and music team Miranda and Franco, who are also all of the appropriate background, it helps ensure that Encanto has the air of cultural authenticity to it. The film reflects the diversity of Colombia- in its geography, wildlife and also in its people. There is an Afro-Latino branch on the Madrigal family tree- via brother-in-law Felix- meaning the film avoids criticisms that the adaptation of Miranda's musical In The Heights attracted earlier in the year.

Viewers from a Colombian, or wider Latin American heritage may particularly connect with aspects of the film, but so many of the themes are universal. There is also a sort of timelessness to the film. It could take place at almost any time (although one small side reference to Telenovellas might place it somewhere in modern times).

Mirabel is also the latest Disney heroine not to have a love interest, although there are some romantic subplots elsewhere. But like Frozen, it's familial love that's the focus here again.

It's technically faultless, but its brilliance goes much deeper than the surface. As with Disney's current best films, Encanto is a beautifully judged combination of Disney's tradition and something much fresher and more contemporary. Mirabel may not have any powers, but Encanto is definitely not lacking that old Disney magic.



IN A NUTSHELL: Fall under the spell of Disney's latest irresistible concoction. Stunningly animated, beautifully written and accompanied by an outstanding soundtrack, Encanto is enchanting.



Seen it? Leave your rating now.