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REVIEW – “Encanto”: Adventurous Disney Musical Balances Feelings of Fun and Fleeting

There may still be a certain youthful jubilation, heading to the cinema over Thanksgiving. A rare occasion where whole families can remain civil enough to be swept up in a filmic endeavor. One fitting for the holiday, to potentially invoke old memories of home, of family unity. The skilled and crafty talents at Disney Animation stand firm on their track record of masterful storytelling and opportune timing, to gather families in seats for an exercise in whimsy and camaraderie. After a few wild story swings in unique realms, their 60th feature Encanto could best be described as a revisiting convergence of familiarity with close family. Albeit still daring to shake up the typical formula a trifle, inadvertently challenging the film’s emotional depth, in the wake of a quickened pace

But that won’t stop its sense of heart from beating a new kind of rhythm. The spirit of Encanto falls primarily on its setting: a colorful community in the heart of Colombia, with a living, breathing house at the center brimming with magic as its catalyst for surprise world building. A hideaway from the pressure of reality, namely political infighting. Its residents, the family Madrigal emerge as representatives of that light enchantment with a valuable purpose. Magical Realism, as the scholars define it, where the unbelievable meets the ordinary. Each individual in this flock carries a spectacular ability to benefit the wider world. Save for scrawny teen daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) who failed to move the needle long ago. To achieve it is by the will of chance at a certain age, where the house adds a new door to a room aligning with one’s gift.

For the burly Luisa (Jessica Darrow), her gift of strengths challenges the patriarchy with a firm aplomb. Older sister Isabella (Diane Guerrero) has a flair for horticultural artistry, making flowers bloom anywhere while maintaining her composure ahead of forthcoming nuptials. Aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, Camilo (Rhenzy Felix) can shapeshift, and youngster Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) is about to discover his affirmation at a grand party. Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero) is hopeful for another victory and look past Mirabel’s sore thumb presence. It never got to her, the steadfast granddaughter settling for oddball status, sharing stories, and fitting in wherever applicable. As hijinks (and songs) ensue, Mirabel quickly stumbles on a few hidden secrets and premonitions of a dark future. Something only she can prevent, and along the way prove her worth as both an individual and within her family.

If co-directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (Zootopia) manage to get one thing right on Encanto’s story, credited to a brain trust including animation vet Nancy Kruse, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Disney newcomer Charise Castro Smith, perhaps it’s how the familial black sheep is treated, manifested as a figurehead of both quirks and insecurities. Mirabel may not set a completely fresh marker in that regard, but the accuracy is palpable to no fault. She’s misunderstood, bitterly scorned at for being so down to earth (think Cinderella and the stepmother). And yet her optimism is unfettered, when not confused by her own curiosity. Even that’s tested upon meeting the reclusive cousin Bruno (John Leguizamo), who grants his relative one gentler nudge in piecing the mystery together.

Howard, Bush and Smith see no trouble embracing some trace element of studio girl power, creating another unlikely heroine in the process. It all happens so quickly, however. Mirabel finding her speciality in this overall slide of confidence moves like the dickens, speed walking between set pieces and musical interludes. There’s a literal mountain of plot setup to navigate, and the pacing slugs itself out while attempting to keep a step ahead. Far from enough time to allow the pure emotional moments, or the audience member, to breathe. Persistently moving from one point to the next with rapidity is fine, but not when it creates narrow shortcuts to avoid. By the time we do approach Encanto’s core, it’s not unlikely to encounter a mild mental exhaustion. Miranda manages to rescue the impact of its big third-act reveal, already lesser opposed to that Frozen mic drop, from flying over one’s head, and landing firm on its feet, with a tear or two shed.

The wizardry that is Miranda’s lyricism works quite beautifully amid this Disney-esque template. I couldn’t say the same for his work earlier this year on Vivo, where the music on its own served beyond its source material. Continuing what’s been a near-spotless cinematic reign this year, and building on lessons learned from 2016’s Moana, Lin’s eye for story has gained focus and resolve. This set of tracks is more than just Lopezian earworms kids will habitually run on a continuous loop, they fit the scene appropriately and build off one another. In the case of Darrow’s low-key showstopper “Surface Tension”, or the tenderly biographical “Dos Oruguitas”, I wouldn’t mind constant replays. Knowing there’s just enough effort here to play above the surface of studio formula, alongside Germaine Franco’s high-spirited underscore

That, and it grants a really stellar cast a heightened opportunity to let out voices of true devotion in their performances. That goes most especially for Miss Beatriz, a rising film star in the making after her eight years on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Quickly responding back from her criminally underutilized In the Heights side role, her Mirabel is full of warmth, empathy, and some slight disquiet. No tricks or dishonesty in her portrayal, which helps against Guerrero’s mean girl energy, Botero’s disdain, or Leguizamo’s enjoyable comic charm. The latter’s been a regular hit-and-miss actor, but the guy reels it in, to smooth out the family’s allure.

As auditoriums are odds-on to fill out with all-ages crowds by the pull of Encanto, I only wish the time spent didn’t have to be so fleeting and bittersweet than its story provokes. I’d have loved more time for its expression of magical imperfection to wash over me. Stumbles aside, it is another Disney triumph in its minimalist way, making some balanced waves. Whilst also querying a lesson for why a family can’t grow beyond a troubled past if they’re not together in healing. To know that’s all happening on screen with a restrained level of flash, and its compassion barely cutting through the clutter, perhaps it rewards more than one look. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Side note: Make sure to arrive early for the accompanying short Far From the Tree, a 2D animated diatribe involving three generations of raccoons warding off the dangers around their home. Brilliantly animated, it is a timely reminder of why listening to one’s parents could actually save a life. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Encanto opens in theaters November 24; rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril (Far From the Tree is rated G); 109 minutes.