Encanto (3.5*) Good family entertainment, but Disney and Miranda might be showing fatigue!

Oscar Nominations:

Animated Feature (WINNER)

Original Score (Germaine Franco)

Original Song (“Dos Oruguitas”, Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Encanto follows in the long Disney tradition dating back to Mickey Mouse’s debut in 1928, almost a century ago.  Ever since, Disney Studios has been the world’s leading producer of animated films and the recognized leader in animation technology.  Starting with Steamboat Willie that year, and nearly every production since, music has been an integral part of animated films. So it probably isn’t surprising that Disney’s 60th Animated Feature Film, Encanto, is a musical. (Oh, and their 59th release, Raya and the Last Dragon, debuted earlier in 2021 and is another nominee in the animated feature race.)

The computer age, though, has changed animated films forever.  Starting with Star Wars technology in the 1970s, computers have been involved in making films ever since.  Pixar Studios emerged out of Lucas Films, the Star Wars developers, in 1979 and since then has delivered multiple computer-animated film series, including the outstanding Toy Story and Cars movies.  Of course, Disney, seeing the rising threat, and, doing what corporations do when they can’t beat the competition, bought Pixar in 2006 so now Disney owns both of the largest producers of computer animation.  (It should be noted that Pixar gave us Luca, a third nominee in this year’s Animated Feature Oscar competition giving Disney ownership of three of this year’s nominees.)  Besides the internal competition between Disney Animation and Pixar, they both face some occasional competition from places like Sony Pictures who produced The Mitchells vs The Machines, this year’s fourth entry – and next week’s movie.  (Of course, there are always some foreign entries like FLEE from Denmark to mix things up – although, that was a very different kind of animated film, and probably doesn’t compare to the other four – it is decidedly not for children or family viewing.)

Having acknowledged all that is not to detract from Encanto – it is a very good piece of Disney animation, vibrant in its use of colors and incorporating ‘magical realism’ in both its story and its style.  There are so many good things to say about this movie:  The computer animation has advanced to a point where, even though the people and objects are obviously not real, they behave like they are.  Facial features and bodies move like real human’s do, with a seamless, fluid motion that defies you to tell they aren’t from some parallel universe.  One of the things I disliked about Disney’s most recent Lion King production was that everything was just too realistic and that lent a creepiness to the animals that was highly disconcerting  because real animals just don’t talk.  In more recent animation, the characters, and the animals are just a shade off and, therefore, the realistic portrayals are not disorienting – we may not be able to live in this alternate world, but we can believe it exists.

Disney, in past animated films, has focused on white and motherless princesses who encounter some villain but then, by pluck and possibly a little magic, overcome the conflict and “live happily ever after”! (Think about almost any of them, but The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are all good examples.  Starting with Pocahontas and Mulan in the 90s and then with Moana, Coco, Onward and Soul in the last decade, Disney has started to incorporate not just people of color, but also stories that express more real life issues, like what does death actually look like (in Soul) or from a different cultural perspective (Coco).  In short, Disney is breaking out of its formulaic past and moving on to new kinds of characters, cultures, and stories.

Encanto is a wonderful effort in that direction.  It is set in Colombia and absorbs both the lush mountains and valleys and the colorful native costumes.  The major voice actors are all, except for just one or two, either Colombian natives, or have close Colombian ancestors.  (And the two or three who don’t are of Hispanic origins.)  While the story does involve a family that is ‘blessed with magical powers’, those powers derive from a traumatic incident that is based in Columbian history.  The realism of the story, and the distance Disney has come from the princess and the villain, is in how the essential conflict in Encanto is between an intrinsically normal teenage girl and her loving efforts to keep her family from harm.  She is trying to protect her family not from a particular villain, but rather from the relentless stresses that family life always seems to face.  Such a story-line is consistent with recent Disney efforts, such as Soul or Coco dealing with normal folk facing rather typical events (like death) without any real embodied villains. 

Unfortunately, Encanto just isn’t as successful!  While the animation is state-of-the-art, and the ethnic authenticity is exceptionally well done, the story remains too shallow.  I don’t mean that in any anti-family way – while I can’t claim to be the best example of someone who has proficiently maintained a successful family – I am a firm believer that the entire construction of a functional social system begins with a functional family (although there are more than one definition what that means!). The problem with Encanto is that it attempted, with good intentions, a theme that was inherently difficult to build an entire story around.  Family’s are so complex and so dynamic, that trying to construct a story that captures those complexities in a head-on confrontation, is a daunting proposition. 

There have been at least two other movies that have emphasized the value of family this year.  CODA, the Best Picture Winner, and Belfast, another Best Picture nominee talked about family.  But they did so by weaving the story around its members and talking about what they were experiencing.  They didn’t beat you over the head with the repeated notion of how important family is.  In Encanto, its like the writers were overworked and tired of producing so many films, one after another, so they opted to just state the word “family” as many times as they could, as a way of drumming into the audience how important it is.

Unfortunately, this exhaustion is also evident in the music.  Now don’t get me wrong, the music, nominated for Original Score and Original Song, is, as my granddaughter said, “just fine”.   Germain Franco wrote the score for the movie and received a nomination for his work.  Previously, he did the score for Coco and so he knows how to construct a score for an animated picture.  ( While nominated, this music does not compare in contribution to overall movie impact as the music does for films like Dune (The Original Score Oscar winner), or Power of the Dog.)

The other musical talent in Encanto is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of all of the original songs and also a co-writer of the script for this musical animation.  I’ve praised Miranda earlier this year, especially for his music and direction of Tick, Tick,…BOOM which I gave 4*.  Miranda was also responsible for his updated version of West Side Story (In The Heights) which was also released this year.  A year earlier he worked on the movie version of his Broadway play, Hamilton.  I grant you that Miranda is a talented man, but humans have a hard time maintaining a constant creative flow over a sustained period of time.  Is it at all possible that, with Encanto, he’s just become too tired?

Of course, there is “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”!  It is a catchy song and involves nearly all the singing cast members engaging in, as their family name suggests, a Madrigal – a song where individual singers pretty much sing their own song, in their own style, but all at the same time.  And the song works – the harmonization offset by subtle contrasts in rhythm is terrific.  But this is not the song nominated for Original Song from this movie, which, thematically is more integral to the story line.  Furthermore, We Don’t Talk About Bruno didn’t take off by itself, but, rather, was assisted by a huge social media moment, catapulting it into the center of popular conscience.

Encanto is a great family movie and is worth viewing.  But this is not one of Disney’s best.  Although I haven’t yet seen the other three nominees for Animated Feature, I have a hard time believing Encanto is worthy of the Oscar win!  Enjoy it, but, aside from Bruno, you won’t talk about much the next day. (3.5*)

Stream on Disney+ and rent it from multiple platforms, NetflixDVD, or wherever you get your discs

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