Encanto (2021)

Chalk at least some of my affection to low expectations and hater spite. Almost everyone I know had neutral or negative things to say upon the theatrical release. That, plus the annoying, inescapable ad campaign with the protagonist’s Dreamworks smile really had me ready to pan.

So I was surprised to have an absolute blast watching Encanto. Honestly, despite my poorly-calibrated expectations, this is the most that Walt Disney Animation Studio feature has charmed me in years. That’s not particularly high praise given my downbeat look on most recent features, but it’s something.

The most common criticism I’ve heard is a lack of narrative thrust, which is certainly true. There’s no real villain (there’s a feint towards Bruno, and Abuela briefly serves a “secret villain” role). The narrative, as it is, observes a few turbulent days as a unique family slowly unravels.

But slice of life movies exist for a reason. I loved getting to know these characters, bopping out to some catchy jams (though the lyrics are pretty half-baked, I’ll admit), and seeing these characters mend their rifts in the end.

The biggest strength of the film is that Mirabel is an excellent protagonist, despite the off-putting ads. Her character animation is sprightly and expressive, the character is well-developed, and Stephanie Beatriz (Rosa from B99!) turns in an amazing vocal performance. Favorite Walt Disney Animation Studio protagonist since probably Rapunzel.

I won’t deny that the script is pretty busted and uneven, and it damages the film. I am getting really tired of Disney’s exposition dumps at the beginning of stories. This, Moana, Frozen II, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Big Hero 6 all drown us in characters and/or lore without much hook in the opening few minutes, to the point where new scenes are pop quizzes — “remember this person’s power?”

But on the whole, the movie works. The colors are great (always an X-factor), I choked up at the heartwarming and sad moments, the immigration crisis parallels are evocative, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a top-50 Disney song ever, and there’s personality in spades. The Grinches can suck on a lemon.

April 2022 update:

I initially watched and reviewed this movie three months ago when it was first added to Disney+ and before its massive resurgence. Some stuff that’s happened since then:

  • Encanto went from underdog with almost no buzz (most of which I read was neutral or negative) to a cultural sensation, racking up ridiculous streaming stats.
  • It won the Oscar for Best Animated Picture. (I haven’t seen Flee, but I would have picked Luca among the rest.)
  • “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became the biggest hit in Disney animation history — and a hilarious self-inflicted Oscar snub — while almost every track from the movie charted on Billboard.
  • The soundtrack has been streamed by my toddlers dozens, possibly hundreds, of times. I know all of these songs by heart, though we’ve somehow avoided rewatching the movie itself until now.
  • Plenty of fans have declared it one of Disney’s best movies ever, which is a tradition anytime they release a smash (and is definitely not true in this case).

And so now my initial, somewhat defensive, review of the movie is almost hilariously dated. This is not a movie that needs any additional advocates.

Inevitably, the movie has lost a little bit of its magic upon revisit. I still don’t think it’s inherently bad that the movie lacks clear narrative thrust, but lacking that clear arc and a polished script takes the wind out of the sails.

So much of the movie feels like a rough draft: the sloppy lyrics, the characters who are almost-but-not-quite deep, the two false-start villains (Bruno, Abuela), etc.

It all still holds together pretty well thanks to the outstanding voice acting and bright colors. There’s a lot of heart here — something that I can’t honestly say about some other recent animated hits.

The bopping soundtrack doesn’t hurt. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome, but I still actually enjoy these numbers. Check out the children’s choir / Adassa cover of “Bruno” if you haven’t yet.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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