Monday, November 22, 2021

Encanto - Review

The latest outing from Walt Disney Animation Studios marks the 60th feature length entry in the studio’s filmography. It continues the relative winning streak that the animation department (and Disney overall) have been on now for quite some time. Much has been made about Hollywood’s reliance on IP’s and franchises to get audiences in seats, but time and time again, animation proves that originality still has a place amidst the nostalgia and sequels. 

Encanto follows the story of the Madrigal family and their miraculous lives. Years and years ago, Abuela Alma discovered a miracle, a candle that has enchanted the town and their family home, and gifted each member of the family with a unique gift like strength or healing. Well, everyone except Mirabel, the only ordinary Madrigal. But she discovers that she may be the only one who can save the magic when it starts to fade. 

On the surface, the story sounds largely like a retread of what’s worked so well the last few years. There’s a hero, a problem to solve and an adventure to be had to solve said problem. It worked in Moana, and subsequent films have essentially mirrored that formula in some way or another. But Encanto is different. The mysteries it presents are intimate and the places it goes never venture further than a 100 yards from the Madrigal’s front door, maybe less. Presenting everyone with powers from this magical source seems tailor-made for an action-adventure style of story, but the end result is much closer to a compelling and thrilling mystery than anything else. 

Even with some darker elements and some grim beats, the overall film is a vibrant and joyful fantasy, anchored with some instantly likable characters. The voice cast is phenomenal.  Stephanie Beatriz voices Mirabel, and imbues the character with an upbeat attitude, even if it would be a lie to say she’s not a little heartbroken underneath it all. Mirabel doesn’t want anything more than to make her family proud, even if that means helping the youngest cousin overcome his own anxieties. Other highlights include John Leguizamo as the exiled Uncle Bruno, who is equal parts comedy and misery, and the super strong, super vulnerable Luisa, voiced by Jessica Darrow. 

The musical approach for Encanto features an interesting shift. The biggest number given to Mirabel diverges from the trend of the catchy, pop tune that’s been featured in every other musical outing of the past decade or so. “Waiting for a Miracle” is more intimate and delicate in its construction, and shares more in common with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musicals than his previous work for Disney. And this approach allows for some more imaginative sequences, with color and abstract ideas meshing into fantastical scenes and spectacular musical moments.

Encanto quietly escapes the adventure-centered narratives of its predecessors, opting for a more intimate, but no less magical, experience. The music is instantly catchy, despite its less pop-centric approach, and the characters are sure to be instant fan favorites. As a studio, Disney’s animation continues to look more and more impressive, packing so many small details and such life in its characters that’s truly astounding to see. In a truly remarkable age of animation, films like Encanto continue to raise the bar. 

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