Foundations are important for both family and feature films.
The Family Madrigal lives in an “encanto,” an enchanted place, as Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) explains in her opening song — introducing the cast, the child chorus, and more details than a six-week history course crammed into six minutes. Happily, all of the Madrigal kids and grandchildren have a magical ability… well, except Mirabel. She’d be okay with this — even their sentient house “Casita” doesn’t mind — if it weren’t for the constant reminders she was inexplicably passed over. When her cousin Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) becomes the first to receive a gift after her failure, Mirabel notices the candle empowering the encanto is beginning to falter during the ensuing celebration. Their abuela (grandmother) Alma (María Cecilia Botero) assures both family and friends there is no such issue, the declaration quietly suggesting Mirabel’s dire warning is born of jealousy — the beginning of cracks showing in not only the Casita but in the Family Madrigal itself.
Similar to other Disney fare where filmmakers explore and embrace a region for a feature presentation, Encanto is constructed around Colombian customs and ideals. Including eight original bilingual songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a score composed by Germaine Franco, the story is born of tragedy, sorrow, and triumph in how the Madrigal family came to be. While these are the seeds of the back story, it in no way informs upon what the movie is actually about… or the odd direction it takes. As told by a character who would be relegated to the background in any other version of a film such as this, is the music, colorful culture, and mysteries within enough to lure audiences into theaters?
The time period is non-specific, but there are suggestions it stems from the Thousand Days’ War, a conflict begun in 1899 and the cause of many Colombians fleeing their homes to survive a political genocide (sorry, kids; it happens). The repeatedly referenced “faceless riders” remembered in Alma’s grief are given no additional explanation or consideration; this works against the narrative because the film doesn’t really have a traditional villain… even after countless cues and suggestions there absolutely should be. With a vibrant score suggesting hidden dangers which never materialize, the final cut feels undercut. It’s as if a more exciting story was muted to make room for too much of the family ensemble until it’s all that remained, leaving Mirabel appearing to apologize in advance on every advertising poster: “I thought there’d be a better story here, too — who knew?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda has become a go-to songwriter for Disney — look at Mary Poppins Returns, for example — with an eclectic style that embraces many song genres, perfect for any Disney musical or the Broadway stage. For Encanto, however, it feels as if the story was either made to fit the songs afterward or the story was changed after the songs were made. This kind of thing happens in development all the time; for example, The Emperor’s New Groove had a villain’s song for Ysma sung by Eartha Kitt; while the song was great, changes to the script scrapped the need for it. Encanto is at the top of its game with the rapid-fire song sequences, but the in-betweens feel forced or dull in comparison, certainly not what was promised and falling flat rather than being triumphant. The repeated hints at a darker or more dangerous story come off as pure bait-and-switch, unfulfilling at best and boring at worst… but hey, nice songs, though.
There’s a good message here, but it’s muddled with suggestions something more going on that isn’t. The truth is worse than a Disney villain: it’s gaslighting by and from people who were assumed trustworthy or having one’s back. Villains lie to heroes and heroines all the time — it’s what they do, after all — but how does one forgive a knowingly false accusation and turning everyone against them with all the hurt that would cause? If the filmmakers had embraced this as the actual theme from the beginning, it’d have made more sense (and been a completely different movie), but did the filmmakers even realize what they’d done in the end? It makes one wonder if an alternate ending — with Mirabel washing her hands of the Family Madrigal and hiking off to Brazil — might be an extra for the home release.
Encanto is rated PG for some thematic elements, mild peril, and using the name “Mirabel” in a song more times than “Roxanne.”
Two skull recommendation out of four