Once upon a time, new Disney and Pixar animated films were an automatic “see in theaters” category for our family. (Well, generally speaking. Maybe someday I’ll get around to The Good Dinosaur.) Works from other animation studios were not so guaranteed and were judged on a case-by-case basis. Our last animated theatrical experience was Pixar’s Onward, which was back in March 2020 and just-okay. For non-Disney fare (not counting shorts) I’d have to go clear back to the third How to Train Your Dragon in 2019, which was likewise just-okay.
Then along came a pandemic that interrupted our traditions and our rhythms. Some studios kept releasing new cartoons anyway, albeit on a protracted schedule. We ignored all of them, even after getting our shots, because of inertia. I recently caught up with a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but they haven’t been a top priority. (Maybe someday I’ll get around to Raya and the Last Dragon.) Amidst this current holiday season my son and I noticed the oversight and revived our tradition at last with an outing for Disney’s Encanto — apropos of the occasion, a film about family, tradition, and ruination that we think comes from without when in fact the disruption is coming from inside the house.
As another installment in Disney’s ongoing initiative to create one animated classic for every country and/or region on Earth, Encanto is set in a happy mountain town in Colombia, where things weren’t always so happy. Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz is Mirabel Madrigal, affably alliterative like all the best comic-book characters, a bubbly teen who dwells with her extended family, all of them wielding superpowers bestowed upon them by a magic candle. Said power source was obtained long ago and not so far away by her grandmother Anna (Colombian star María Cecilia Botero) after she escaped her husband’s murderers, a pack of shadowy horsemen armed with swords and torches. Their fleeting spookiness is the only hint of cartel life that typifies Colombia’s appearances in virtually every Hollywood production prior to this one. Fortunately for the MPAA rating they’re not the main villains.
As our protagonist, Mirabel is of course not like the rest of her family: when that special day came to learn what superpowers she would receive…she got nothing. No strength or flight or invisibility, no mind-reading or hand-lasers, not even card tricks or Sudoku skills. She’s a bubbly optimist, but that’s not a superpower except maybe to older relatives who point it out when patronizing her. She’s a normal person living in a place where everyone else around her is unusual, quite an inversion of most other Disney family living arrangements. If she had her own comic, it would be called Thoroughly Mundane Mirabel.
Not that she’s bitter. She gets along with most of her family and is definitely close to their magical house. It moves, emotes, reacts, and practically counts as a backup dancer in their musical numbers. Because of their closeness, Mirabel is first to notice something’s going wrong with the house. Cracks begin appearing in the walls and various features are crumbling and falling off. When Mirabel tries to show anyone else, everything looks fine and she’s deemed bonkers. They take her more seriously when the candle’s eternal flame also falters and they can all feel their precious powers waning. It’s naturally up to Mirabel to figure out what’s going wrong and whether it can be reversed, lest the other Madrigals risk becoming…well, ordinary. No one comes right out and finishes their sentences, “…like Mirabel!” but you know they’re thinking it in disgust.
As with a few other Disney/Pixar films of recent vintage, there’s no singular, cackling villain to blame. As Mirabel’s search for clues takes her to its special doorways, to every nook and cranny, and deep into the house’s most unsightly recesses that may or may not be bigger on the inside, the real culprit is…family secrets! Thus the investigation leads to a person of interest and disdain: Mirabel’s long-lost Uncle Bruno, voiced by John Leguizamo in Moulin Rouge motormouth mode without his Ice Age impediment. It’s been a while since someone played the Robin Williams role in a Disney movie with anything approaching the same level of zeal, but in his limited screen time from within his confines, Leguizamo raises energy levels by several bars, provides much-needed contrast to some dourer moments, and cracks a pretty wild joke about telenovelas that I can’t believe made it into a Disney film (and I don’t mean because of the anachronism).
Lessons are learned along the way. Honesty beats repression. Sometimes we need to listen to our loved ones even when they’re telling us important things we don’t want to hear, even if they’re your siblings and they’re dumb and stupid and you hate them so, SO much. Sometimes matriarchies can go wrong. Living through traumas can make us overprotective. Prophecies are often one piece in a larger puzzle that shouldn’t be mistaken for an entire picture. Meanwhile, there’s the question of Mirabel. Is she just a late bloomer? Is a different destiny calling her? Is her true superpower the friends she made along the way? Or is it…the power of song?
Well, okay, it isn’t the power of song. Everyone gets a piece of that action. As one of three films this year to feature the songwriting styles of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Encanto has no shortage of tunes that make for a snappy, lively theatrical experience in the moment. I tend to forget songs from musicals a few days after watching them, but that’s my own shortcoming. Without having to cheat with YouTube reminders, the standout to me was “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”, which is all about the first and second rules of Bruno Club. With cheating reminders, now I remember “Surface Pressure”, as sung by Maribel’s super-strong sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) who has much to brag about and much to endure. Miranda superfans have no choice but to come check out the rest.
Encanto‘s central narrative seems slight compared to other films with higher stakes. Its large family means screen time has to be thinly sliced among the cast so everyone gets a little, too often drowned out by the whirlwinds of action around them. A few characters exist as little more than unfilled gag placeholders. But the ensemble leads bring more than enough affection to spread around. The film has a large heart for outcasts who find their calling, effervescent colors in abundance, and sharp slapstick reflexes.
Despite its low-key energy, I especially laughed at one scene involving a stray capybara that wanders into camera, gets in the way of people performing important tasks, and is merely content to sit and stare at what’s going on, apropos of the classic shocked-capybara scene from Planet Earth II, one of our household’s favorite memes. If I forget the rest of this film within six months, I’ll still remember that modest capybara.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Many in the cast are famous Latin American musicians a bit outside my spheres. Wilmer Valderrama (That ’70s Show) is Maribel’s dad, totally not absentee, but he’s given so little to do that you wonder if the six credited writers forgot he was there, assumed he was a deadbeat, and left him out by accident. Far more attention is lavished upon Diane Guerrero (Doom Patrol) as Maribel’s other sister Isabela, who’s basically Poison Ivy and whose self-absorbed perfection becomes a problem. Youngsters running hither and yon include Rhenzy Feliz (Alex Wilder from Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways) as a changeling.
Also, Disney utility infielder Alan Tudyk makes noises as an unhelpful toucan, a distant cousin of Moana‘s Hei-Hei. In between filming episodes of Resident Alien, Tudyk is totally poised to become the Frank Welker of dumb birds.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Encanto end credits, but those who stick around can see the standard assortment of cutesy clip art festooning the margins around the names and job titles. To my delight, the very last drawing before the Disney logo is a capybara silhouette. It isn’t much, but I’ll take it.