Saturday, January 29, 2022

Encanto (+ Far From the Tree)

Within the last few years, the Walt Disney Company has made greater attempts at representing previously underrepresented cultures, with the side effect of opening up new storytelling opportunities and leaving room for experimentation. In this vein, Encanto, the sixtieth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, explores Columbian culture while telling the story through a tight-knit, and for some relatable, family dynamic. Though the film underperformed at the box office, earning about $216.3 million against an estimated budget of $120-150 million, it achieved a newfound success from its recent Disney+ release, which was also how we finally saw the film. Indeed, a combination of passionate writing and directing, along with the unique Disney flair, elevate Encanto as one of the studio's better films in recent years.

When a member of the Madrigal family reaches a certain age, a magical candle known as the “miracle” grants them a superhuman ability that Alma (María Cecilia Botero), the family matriarch, encourages them to use to contribute back to the town. However, Mirabel (Noemi Josefina Flores), one of Alma’s granddaughters, never received a gift from the candle and is treated differently for it throughout her life. Years later, Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), the youngest member of the family, receives the ability to speak with animals, once again leaving Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) the only Madrigal by blood without a gift. During Antonio’s celebration, however, Mirabel notices the family’s sentient house, the “Casita”, cracking and the candle’s light flickering. Unfortunately, no one believes her notion that the family’s magic is in danger of disappearing.

Only Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), notices the cracks forming in the Casita.

Despite the rather large cast of twelve family members, Encanto paces its story very well and gives the audience just enough information that they get a good sense of their relationships and how the gifted family members apply their powers in their everyday life. Not only that, we gradually learn how maintaining an image of perfection has given some of them a mental toll to the point where they can’t freely express themselves. As such, their powers not only serve as a powerful metaphor, but also tie into the film’s message of what having a gift really means. Mirabel’s lack of powers also ties heavily into the story and its themes, as everyone ignores her or brushes her aside until they realize just how important she really is for the family.

Encanto’s core themes about family and unaddressed issues are also explored with the character of Bruno (John Leguizamo), a tragically misunderstood member of the Madrigals who received a worse treatment than Maribel despite having powers of his own. His particular powers also help influence the plot in subtle, but significant ways and have creative callbacks later on. His relatable quirks and sympathetic portrayal, including how deeply he cares for his family despite their harsh treatment of him, also help make him one of the most memorable characters of the film.

2021 was not a good year for people named Bruno.

As expected from a Disney production, the animation is very top notch. Alongside the highly detailed backgrounds, which still have some stylization and Columbian flair, the cloth and sand physics look impressively realistic while characters move like they have real weight. The various musical numbers also feature some very creative framing and transitions while also visually showcasing the singing abilities of many of the cast members. Viewers may also appreciate that while the film’s art style is vaguely reminiscent of Moana, it breaks firmly away from the style shared by both Tangled and Frozen.

Ironically, the original songs, provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda, are one of the weaker aspects of the film. Nothing against their quality, they in fact sound very much like big Broadway pieces and unlike Frozen II, the animation really explores the medium for the best framing. However, most of the songs didn’t stick as well with me as other Disney films. For example, I had a hard time making out all of the lyrics for “The Family Madrigal” due to some of the rapid-fire delivery. That said, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” really stuck with me after the film, even if I didn’t remember every word.

During theatrical screenings, Encanto was paired with the original short Far From the Tree, which follows a young raccoon and explores the long-term effects of overprotective parenting. While the short covers similar themes as Encanto, the execution feels different and carries very emotional weight in only a fraction of the time and with no dialogue. Its unique art style also looks visually impressive thanks to employing a similar animation technique to Paperman, combining the principles of traditional and CG animation in an interesting way. While the animation does everything in its power to look and feel like traditional animation, however, viewers more familiar with CG may still notice it based on the way the characters move.

Encanto continues Disney’s upward trend in quality from Raya and the Last Dragon, with well-written characters, great music and a great sense of realism without losing any touch of magic. If you have access to Disney+, consider giving this a watch.

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