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by Jay Seaver

"All over the place, but once it locks in..."
4 stars

It's been some time since Disney's last traditionally-animated feature, and while "Encanto" wouldn't necessarily be better that way - the filmmakers would have made a lot of different choices - there's a looseness to the film that occasionally feels at odds with CGI precision. It feels like the result of doodling, riffing, and batting ideas across a room, and as a result the ways in which it shines can almost sneak up on a viewer: All these bits of story that don't quite fit together wind up forming a pattern that may just get to its viewers more than they expected.

It opens with Mirabel Madrigal (voice of Stephanie Beatriz) telling the story of her family, refugees who settled in a secluded valley led by her abuela Alma (voice of Maria Cecilia Botero), whose late husband left her a magical candle that not only caused their house to grow to accommodate her triplets and come to life, but also blessed them and the family's next generation with extraordinary abilities for the benefit of their community when they came of age - Mirabel's mother's cooking heals, her cousin can hear every noise in the valley, sisters Luisa (voice of Jessica Darrow) and Isabela (voice of Diane Guerrero) have incredible strength and the ability to grow flowers, and pre-teen Antonio (voice of Ravi Cabot-Coyers) has just discovered he can talk to animals. Mirabel, on the other hand, did not receive that sort of blessing, but she is nevertheless the one who seems most keenly aware that the family's magic appears to be fading.

There are a couple of ways that the filmmakers could go with this. It's possible that Mirabel has simply not discovered her power (which will almost certainly be useful in this particular situation) yet, either because she's a late bloomer or it's not obvious, or she may genuinely be ordinary on that count. It's a tricky if mostly-successful balancing act before the filmmakers opt to commit to a specific direction, especially as she's given most of the earlier songs and it seems possible that she's got something tied to creativity or the arts. There's not much going on to suggest the story's going to head in that direction, though, and much of what does go on implies a theme of how it's more important to be good than gifted. Even when they do pick a lane, there are enough characters, subplots, and circling around the main story to potentially frustrate. There are moments when it threatens to become a sort of anti-Princess movie where kids learn that concentrating a bunch of inherited power and wealth in one family is always going to cause problems, no matter how well-intentioned they are, but that theme might be a little heady for kids, so it's probably for the best that the film eventually settles on familial expectations and sibling rivalry.

Even if there are fault lines, though, it's a nice group to hang around with. Stephanie Beatriz and the film's animators have a tricky task in terms of putting Mirabel at the center of the story despite the fact that she really cannot be bigger than the family members whose most significant personality traits bleed out past their bodies, but there's energy to Beatriz's delivery and sweep to her movements that makes her vibrant and able to draw people in. It's an obvious contrast to how, between Maria Cecilia Botero's stern delivery and how Abuela Alma is so visually solid (with little unnecessary movement), it's easy to forget she doesn't have powers herself. There's nifty work in how Antonio goes from terribly nervous about his impending ceremony to excited about his gift, as well as how they plant an image and then back it up a bit when introducing the missing Uncle Bruno, with both the animation and John Leguizamo's voice work favoring nervous restraint over twitchy eccentricity.

On top of solid character animation, the film is just generally gorgeous, full of color and whimsical design. The animators fill the screen with fun detail but generally stop short of doing too much and overpowering the audience. Even during the more adventuresome sequences the animators seem to be having fun cartooning, and those adventurous moments pop a little bit extra if one gets a chance to see it in 3D; the stereo crew does impressive work with the house's busy and sometimes impossible structures. I also suspect that the company's software developers made a major leap in rendering fabric at some point during this film's production, because costumes like Mirabel's loose dresses move in ways they seldom have before.

The songs are sometimes a bit of an odd bunch; Lin-Manuel Miranda handles that end of the film and they're not quite so traditional as what he did for <I>Moana</I>, with the catch-enough melodies supporting chewy vocabulary words for the kids and raps that must have left some performers gasping for breath. That rapid-fire delivery makes for some terrific numbers, though, most notably Luisa's song where the visuals rush to keep up with what she's singing in a way that would do Robin Williams's Genie in Aladdin proud in its barrage of visual gags and shifting settings, something the songs in Disney's lighter cel-style features managed in a way that the CGI ones have seldom come close to equalling.

There are points early on when the sheer amount of different things the filmmakers are up to threaten to sink it - it's the sort of animated film where one can feel the three directors and three others with story credits - but it pulls together in impressive fashion, to the point where it could very well work better the second time around, On top of that, it feels like it's busy and wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that might immediately click with kids even if I needed some time to acclimate.

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originally posted: 12/02/21 15:00:05
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User Comments

12/30/21 Jason Loved the music and animation. The plot is unnecessarily complex which takes away a bit. 4 stars
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