Magical, musical ‘Encanto’ delights

Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

8/10 In Encanto, off-brand Pixar does Colombian X-Men. This crazed Mad Lib is a real movie, and it’s pretty good.

Colombia- As Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero, with Olga Merediz stepping in for singing parts) flees an unspecified conflict in Colombia, a miracle! Magic filigrees the candle she carries, which ceases to burn down. It saves her, conjures a mansion and blesses her triplets with magical powers.

Decades later, Alma, now a grandmother, has used her family’s blessing to embed it into and protect their new community, and the candle has continued to endow every newborn Madrigal with a wondrous magical gift – all except Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), who was inexplicably passed over. The entire town sighs with relief when Antonio Madrigal (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), the youngest to come of age since Mirabel, receives his birthright as expected, but Mirabel witnesses the casita begin to crack. She determines to somehow stop her family’s light from going out.

Encanto dazzles with complex internal, private and public conflicts, a delightful magical world and a story built around gracefully introducing the viewer to its characters. The opening number is Mirabel Madrigal taking viewers through her family tree, an act which casually introduces most of the tensions of the film. Encanto positions itself to be about Mirabel being just as special as the rest of her family even though she has no powers, but the conflict runs much deeper than that – the question of self-confidence isn’t even raised for the determined, optimistic character.

The movie as a whole is just as cheery as Mirabel Madrigal. The animation is beautiful, based around big shapes and sharp colors, especially background greens. In this medium, every pixel must be intentionally created, and Encanto brings that level of detail to the party, especially with its fleshed-out character concepts. Every Madrigal is conceived perfectly and fully, each with an exterior design, motivation and worldview that mesh into characters who feel real and full without distracting the plot – we stay firmly in Mirabel’s perspective and narrative, but every family member feels like a full character even if they stay entirely in the background. They all have specific, themed pocket dimensions that have doors with intricate artwork displaying their powers, implying there’s a significant level of destiny at play. Generic powers like Isabela’s (Diane Guerrero) supernatural beauty or Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) incredible strength aren’t just tropes of power fantasy, they’re tools to help them fulfill a specific role in their family and community.

Things are always happening in Encanto. One of Mirabel Madrigal’s marvelous family members are always doing something incredible, or their magical, conscious casita that seems to have a special relationship with each family member is always moving around to help them with their chores or just dancing. This house really likes dancing.

Alma, who fears the family losing its power and being subject to political violence once more, sees Mirabel an ill omen, and everyone knows what happens to ill omens for the Madrigals – Bruno Madrigal (John Leguizamo), Alma’s son and Mirabel’s uncle, can see the future, and lives in exile from the family because he was blamed when his prophecies come true. She loves and fears her granddaughter and appears to struggle with the two emotions, which translates into a strained distance from Mirabel’s perspective.

Mirabel Madrigal lives with this tension, but also the tensions of a normal teenage girl in a powerful family, expected to be both more beautiful and capable than other girls – for Mirabel, this expectation is even higher because of the birthright she cannot access, and her failure to meet it is more pronounced because of her supernaturally beautiful and strong older sisters, and the strong implication that individual Madrigals’ powers are intwined with their divine destiny makes the whole thing that much more personal. Mirabel’s well-buried jealousy, which is certainly for her entire family but focuses on Luisa, and Isabela’s irritation with her runt sister, which Mirabel certainly perceives from her entire family but is only voiced by Isabela, are other conflicts running through Encanto that are introduced as simply as by listing the characters off.

As the main plot of the family potentially losing its miracle T-bones Alma Madrigal’s main focus, completing a powerful marriage for Isabela, the full stakes, the soft power the Madrigals enjoy because of the hard power they back it up with, take stark shape.

The relentlessly optimistic Mirabel Madrigal is a joy to spend the movie with and an atypical protagonist in several ways that enhance Encanto’s complexity and rich relationships. Just as the conflicts stem mostly from these characters’ natures, their resolution, and this powerless character’s power, come from empathy and the ability to navigate personalities.

The “off-brand Pixar” of Encanto is Walt Disney Animation Studios, the original cartoon house that regained its fame in the ‘90s renaissance and claims a lineage all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Since 2003, it’s mostly switched to computer animation and carved out a cultural niche as the second-best animation studio to Pixar, which Disney bought in 2006 and putatively owned before then because Disney did all of Pixar’s early distribution.

The studio erupted back into the foreground after finally getting human animation just right in 2013’s Frozen, resulting in what’s quietly become a second Disney renaissance. As Disney realized how profitable diversity is during this time period, they’ve devoted this leg of the empire to expanding cultural appeal with films like Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, which were born of Disney-fying genuine Polynesian and South Asian mythology, and this is where Encanto raises some red flags – this is not an expression of Colombian mythology the way other films in this string are. Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard and other creatives have paid similar lip service to Colombia as an inspiration, but this mostly seems focused on animating authentic architecture and including the country’s large black population.

The idea of this as a genuinely Colombian film doesn’t have any teeth, and with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star Puerto Rican-American songwriter who has lived his whole life in Manhattan and sets almost all of his material there, front and center of the marketing, the danger is for Encanto to slide into the trope of mashing Hispanic cultures together in a way that centers on the white American conception of racial groupings – that brown people from south of the border are all the same, essentially.

If Encanto smears Hispanic cultures together a bit for American consumption, it’s not the end of the world – there are plenty of non-Colombian Hispanic viewers who this movie is also for, and it certainly speaks to the hyper-importance of family in immigrant communities, where immediate relatives are frequently the only people who really understand each other’s background and maybe even the only people who speak each other’s language. It’s certainly being welcomed in Colombia itself, where it’s held at no. 1 for three weeks doing good, but not spectacular, business.

This may seem like a chintzy standard to hold Encanto to, but this is Walt Disney Animation Studios, the cartoon house whose history includes things like Song of the South and Peter Pan. There’s an acknowledged history here. The company has recently decided to steer into selling representation, and if they’re going to do that, it’s important they do it correctly.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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