If you liked Moana then you are the target for Encanto, a song-filled animated story of young female derring-do, set against the background of an ancient civilisation and with a sprinkling of magic to help things along.
Polynesia did the decorative thing for Moana, it’s Mesoamerica in Encanto, but if actual knowledge brings you in out in hives, be not afraid, it’s largely just a few masks and other accessories borrowed from the Amerindian back catalogue to give Disney’s latest princess a USP that sets her apart from Pocahontas, Mulan, Merida et al. This one also wears glasses just to make her stand out from the increasingly homogenous big-eyed throng.
The action takes place in a non-specific “sometime” before the modern world complicated things, in an enchanted (to use the English translation of the word “encanto”) house where each member of a family headed by wise, stern Abuela Alma has been given a magical gift – one is strong, another can shape-shift, a third is very beautiful (!), another can talk to the animals. One, Bruno, can see into the future, but no one talks about him, for reasons the film will explore. The speccy Mirabel stands alone as the family member who does not have a gift, a lack she feels keenly but compensates for with a surfeit of can-do optimism and curiosity.
It’s thanks to Mirabel’s enquiring mind that she first spots that there is a glitch in the matrix, a disturbance in the force – the magic may well be in danger of disappearing. And that is the story of Encanto: Mirabel’s quest to find out if the potential impending disaster is really coming her way and if it is to fix it so her family can continue living happy privileged lives in their enchanted house.
Laid out as obviously as that this is not, if we’re being honest, much of a quest, and in the end there is an aspect of Encanto that is a bit non-eventful. When it’s finished you might well feel, as I did, a sudden wave of surprise. Oh, it’s over… but nothing really happened. That’s not quite true. But compared to Moana very little does happen here. Nor does Mirabel get a larger-than-life travelling companion to accompany her on her journey, which goes little further than into the walls of the house, where strange, darker forces are at work.
This film really needed someone like Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson in Moana) in it – a big ball of fun and entertainment. Instead we’re thrown onto the slightly Frozen-esque relationships of Mirabel and her family. It could also have done with a few more good songs. Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also wrote the tunes for Moana) gets a couple of good ones out there – Surface Pressure and We Don’t Talk about Bruno are smart, tuneful displays of the Hamilton writer’s verbal dexterity – but he seems also to have been persuaded to chuck in a few standard Broadway-style makeweights. Disappointing, considering Miranda’s gift to modern culture has been the kneecapping of the musical’s standard operating procedures – adenoidal honking and incessant musical and verbal counterpoint. If that sort of standard Broadway fare is your bag, What Else Can I Do? – a keening duet sung between sisters Mirabel and Isabela – is the one for you.
The animation is bright, lively, warm and soft – as if the feelgood filtration setting had been turned up to the max. Too bright, too lively, too warm and soft, you might feel. Where is the grit in the oyster? Miranda (who helped with the story), and co-writers/directors Jared Bush (who worked on Moana), Byron Howard (Tangled, Mulan, Zootopia) and Charise Castro Smith) are so intent on portraying the family as a supportive, inclusive unit – the bedrock of everything Hispanic, to put it in racial terms – that the-family-as-problem dynamic gets slightly lost in the feelgood.
This is the film that just won the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, so the writers/directors can wave away any criticism with the statutette as middle finger. The fact that it beat out The Mitchells vs the Machines – exhaustingly busy, granted, but super-smart – is a bit of magic all of its own.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022