The search for safety, security, identity and family forms the backbone of the Disney animated features. All the way back to 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' in 1937, this journey has recurred over and over again, becoming the dominant narrative of Disney animation. Rather than feeling tired or overused, the variations on this theme have often been surprising and inventive, cleverly tapping into one of the few emotional experiences shared by both children and adults - the feeling of being an outsider, looking for your place in the world. Their 60th animated feature, 'Encanto', is yet another variation on this theme, but while the film's subject matter, cultural heritage and collective talent might suggest a fresh approach, the actuality is disappointingly otherwise.
The enchanted Madrigal family have lived in seclusion in a magical Encanto in Colombia for many generations. Each member of the family is granted a special gift from a magical candle that sits high atop their rambunctious enchanted Casita, and under the guidance of the family matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), they use their powers to help the people living with them in the Encanto. The only Madrigal without powers is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, 'In The Heights'), who wears her disadvantage with a smile despite being ostracised by her family. When the magic of the Encanto starts to fade and the family begin to lose their powers, the blame is laid on Mirabel, but in her quest to save her family and her home, she begins to wonder whether she is the cause or the solution.
There has been a certain degree of excitement about 'Encanto', and for good reason. It is still very rare for Disney animation to represent international cultures, and even rarer for them to do it well, but great attention to detail had gone into the voice casting, and the presence of award-winning composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda ('In the Heights', 'tick, tick...BOOM!') added an air of legitimacy. There was also Miranda's most recent composing project for Disney, the modern classic 'Moana' (2016), their best animated film in 20 years. Unfortunately, despite the cultural care and the incredible animation, 'Encanto' does not fulfil the promise of its credentials. Rather than a new modern classic, the film is a confusing mess that leaves you frustrated rather than enchanted.
The premise has great merit, especially with the historical context of Colombia's troubled past and the terrific setting of the endlessly charming Casita, but the main problem with 'Encanto' boils down to one thing - the Madrigals are a horrible family. They live in a state of unquestioned and complacent privilege, bound together by a shared bit of luck that makes them more powerful and prosperous than the rest of the Encanto. They use their powers for good, but rather than purely altruistic, it gives them an arrogance that is at best off-putting and at worst detestable. Nowhere is this clearer than in their relationship with Mirabel, not just the only genuine adult of the lot but also the most beautifully constructed and complex character of the film. Her lack of powers makes her an almost total outcast, where her cousins and her parents look at her with a mixture of pity and confusion, and Abuela, one of the most unlikeable characters in a Disney animated feature in years, reacts to her with open contempt. There is a moment early in the film where Mirabel's young cousin Antonio (and the only family member on her side) is successfully granted his gift, and Abuela calls for a family photo. Everyone crowds in, but before Mirabel can join them, the photo is taken. Even her own parents don't comment on her absence. In that moment, the film completely lost me. I did not care for any of these characters or their fate, and as the film went along and we see the other cracks in the family, my dislike for Abuela Alma intensified. It becomes hard to see why Mirabel would have any loyalty to this family, especially as she begins to discover that her thoroughly selfish and evil grandmother has subjected the others to the same untenable expectations, and even emotionally outcast other family members who have dared to threaten her philosophy.
This might all work if the film understood Abuela Alma as the villain, but it never seems to. The film tries very hard for there to be no strong "villain", but by making Mirabel so charming and relatable (helped by Beatriz's gorgeous performance) and making Abuela's cruelty so palpable, it robs us of the possibility of truly sympathising with her. There's an obvious allegory here for being the one person in a family who fits outside of the societal norms, whether they be queer or have a disability or even just an incompatible personality, but if we were to watch a character go through what Mirabel goes through (being told she is the reason for the destruction of their family on multiple occasions, by multiple family members), it's hard to see why she would stick around or have any loyalty at all to those around her.
It doesn't help that the film also suffers from the strange issue of being both jumbled and lacking in story all at once. A leaner, tighter film may have made more of an impact, but in this form, spends a lot of its time spinning its wheels unnecessarily. Unfortunately, much of that wheel-spinning is down to Miranda's songs, a fine selection but nowhere near as impactful or necessary as those in his previous work. Some do not advance to story at all, some very suddenly advance the story far too much and all of them move so fast that it's very hard to keep up or even understand what is being sung. They aren't melodies that stick in your head or songs that feel vital, leaving you to wonder whether the film might have been stronger without them. The visual language doesn't help either. Jared Bush and Byron Howard were part of the directing team for the Oscar-winning 'Zootopia' (2016), but 'Encanto' lacks the focus and character development of that film. They also don't find a winning formula for approaching Miranda's songs. Where co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements knew to let the music guide the sequences in 'Moana', here Bush and Howard throw everything at them with montages that initially charm and ultimately baffle with their endless gags and tricks. The camera rarely stops moving, making it hard to take in the visual scope of the film. The whizzing and flying around is exciting, but after an hour you long for something more assured and grand.
Rather than a new modern classic, the film is a confused mess that leaves you frustrated rather than enchanted.
In the final act of the film, Abuela Alma shares the story of her past with Mirabel, offering a moment of redemption for the problematic character. It's here that 'Encanto' is given a fascinating opportunity to take the traditional Disney narrative into powerful new territory, to explore intergenerational trauma and how the need to build a brick wall to protect your heart can smash the hearts of the ones you love. It flashes for a moment like a magic candle, but quickly it becomes clear that this is too big a burden for 'Encanto' to carry. Redemption comes too quickly, abuses are swiftly forgiven, and just at the moment where the Madrigal family have the opportunity of building something new, free of status or privilege and forged in a new shared understanding of each other and self, the film does a jarring backflip and leaves you wondering what the point of all this was. Mirabel is a great character in the grand tradition of Disney animated characters. She's funny, intelligent, determined, empathetic, connected with her pain and hopeful for the future. The film itself does not do this great character justice. The characters around her are forgettable, the narrative she has to follow is slight, the resolution is barely in her favour and the filmmaking guiding her never seems to know where it is going, perhaps unfairly expecting Lin-Manuel Miranda to do the work for them.
With 'Raya and the Last Dragon', the more time passed, the more the film grew in my esteem. With 'Encanto', it has been the opposite. There's so much that could work here, but there is a darkness in it that, while welcome, is woefully unexplored and underdeveloped. I walked away from this film with a sour taste in my mouth, left with little desire to revisit this thoroughly unlikeable family again. After many years of flailing, Disney found a new energy with 'Frozen' (2013) that propelled them into a new exciting creative period for them. 'Raya' has some of that energy, but after the strange mess of 'Frozen 2', the shocking face-plant of 'Ralph Breaks The Internet' and now this uncomfortable confusion in 'Encanto', it's starting to look like that energy is beginning to run out.