Once upon a time the format for Disney Animation was simple and unchanging – take a well-known fable or children’s story, add high level ballads and funny animal or magic characters, mix thoroughly and produce fun kids’ perennial.
In reality it missed almost as often as it hit, but years of VCR babysitting and endless home video re-releases caused even the misses to be re-examined and codified, creating an idea of what these films were and obscuring how often they deviated from the ‘formula’ of the Disney Princess.
Some of that was Disney’s own particular tastes and some of it was a need to look ever further afield for new stories but seldom leaving room for original musings. Modern Disney Animation hasn’t changed that much, leaving most of the real experimentation to Pixar, but with the rise and success of the Frozen franchise a newfound willingness to go further afield has overtaken the division leading to one of their most interesting experiments in years – Encanto.
An original story from playwright Charise Castro Smith, Encanto eschews the classic fairy tale and Disney PrincessTM storytelling to introduce the magical Madrigal family. Living for three generations in a magical house in an undetermined time and place (roughly mid-to-late 20th century Latin America), each member of the family has been blessed with a singular magical gift, protecting the home, the family and the local village.
Each member except thoughtful Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who hides the great disappointment of being ‘normal’ by trying to be everything for every other member of the household. That desire is put to its greatest test when the night of the newest coming-of-age ceremony coincides with a vision of the house falling into ruin.
While many of the family suspect Mirabel of grabbing attention because she did not receive a gift, particularly stern family matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), she refuses to give up her quest until she finds the cause of the visions and saves the family.
It’s an exciting new direction of Disney Animation, but new directions for Disney Animation have been mixed bags in the past – sometimes great (The Princess and the Frog), sometimes not (Home on the Range, Brother Bear). Encanto is solidly in the middle of those extremes, blessed with a strong central concept and a desire to do more than just the usual with its heroine and her problems but hamstrung by a fear of going too far afield.
Following in the tracks of Moana, heroine Mirabel is less interested in romance than in divining her own identity while also helping her family, with a healthy dose of Frozen’s individual superpowers to offer a sense of magic to this new fairy tale (while integrating into story and theme much better than Frozen ever managed).
These are not accidental appropriations of other films’ elements but intentional repurposing just in case the story’s true heart doesn’t connect. Instead, it tends to cover up the film’s intent rather than amplify it, reducing the impact of its largest moments.
The sense of Mirabel’s inner turmoil over her lack of abilities, and her complex relationships with her family members eventually delivers a tapestry of character-related insight, but there’s so much artificial hullabaloo before that point it’s a muted delivery. A wise man once said desperation is a stinky cologne, and it takes a while for Encanto to wipe the musk off.
Fully the first ten minutes of the film are devoted to repeating how Mirable didn’t get a gift and how bad she must feel about it in song, in dance, in every conversation she has with every character she meets, just in case we miss this essential ingredient to her character. It ultimately does her a disservice as it attempts to reduce her (and many of her other family members) to one easily understandable compunction with no other facets.
The animation behind all of this is top notch, particularly bringing the house itself to life, but some of the storytelling choices are curious (particularly around vanished Uncle Bruno) and the music rarely integrates completely into the storytelling. Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda offered better new music in both In the Heights and Vivo this year.
None of it covers up the truly excellent character work Encanto does deliver, particularly when she starts to learn the hidden other sides of her family members like super strong Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) hidden vulnerability and effortlessly-perfect Isabela’s (Diane Guerrero) desire to let go and be a complete mess. But it does keep it from having the impact it could have as major plot points are hammered home without subtletly and interesting characters are pushed aside to get more magic on the screen.
No Disney Animated film is going to be a straight up character drama about families discovering who each other really are, and nor should it. But the balance between lofty ambitions and desire to have some familiar elements is tough to maintain and Encanto is often placed in a difficult situation it doesn’t need to be in.
There’s a lot to like about Encanto, and some things to outright love about it. If only the filmmakers behind it had more faith that it could stand on its own.
ENCANTO REVIEW SCORE: 6.5/10
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto will open in theaters on November 24 and will be available to stream on Disney+ starting on December 24.