Ohhh yes! If we build this mountain on England, England would sink under the weight.
Sink? In that case, this mountain would be invaluable, people could climb up the side and save themselves from drowning!
Mercy, you’re right. Hurry and build it, before we all drown!
The Goon Show: “The Greatest Mountain in the World” (1954)
Alright, let’s just dispense with the usual dancing around.
Encanto is great. It’s a great piece of animation. It’s an excellent musical and it’s without a doubt my favourite canon movie in a long-ass time. It’s walking out of here with a good grade, don’t nobody worry ’bout that.
I have to confess that what really fascinates me about Encanto is how it keeps making the most basic, obvious mistakes in screen-writing you can imagine (trying to build a mountain that will cause the country to sink), and instead of just fixing them in a sensible way (just not building the mountain) by doubling down and solving those problems in the most ridiculously over the top way possible (actually building the mountain). And it works.
The best example of this is the first song Welcome to the Family Madrigal.
There are twelve named speaking Madrigal characters, all with unique personalities, powers and familial relationships to keep track of. That is, quite frankly, bananas and any sensible screenwriter would have gone through the cast with a machete looking for who could be cut.
Way I see it, for this story you need Mirabelle, two older siblings to establish the pattern that Mirabelle broke by not getting a gift, and then a younger sibling to get a gift to show that Mirabelle really was a fluke. You need Abuela, obviously, Bruno and Julietta. Augustine doesn’t need to be there and Pepa’s entire family is extraneous. And yes, obviously, that would really suck to lose those characters but that would be the sensible choice. The sane choice. But that would not be the Encanto choice.
Encanto instead decides that it’s going to have an opening song flat out admitting “yes, our cast is far too big and complicated and our premise is weird and clunky so here is a song to help you remember”. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. But simply by dint that it is a phenomenal song it does. They built the goddamn mountain.
But I get ahead of myself. So about that premise.
Okay, so there was this lady named Alma, her husband Pedro and their baby triplets and they were fleeing through the jungle to escape the carnage of the Thousand Days War, a conflict that devastated Colombia at the turn of the 20th century and killed 2.5% of the population and that I first learned about through a Disney cartoon so I guess I’m an ignorant asshole, okay, good to know.
Pedro was killed and in her grief Alma prayed for a miracle which made her candle become magic. The magic candle then closed off the valley from the rest of the world and created a house, which was also magic. And now, every time a member of Alma’s family comes of age they get a magic door in the magic house created by the magic candle which was created by the miracle. When they touch the magic door, they get a magic power and a magic room that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
I’m actually a little angry about how needlessly complicated this premise is. This movie had six credited writers but apparently no one in charge who could just say “no, this is too much. You don’t need all this.” Hey, Lin Manuel Miranda? Let me fix that for you:
Alma was wandering heartbroken in the jungle and she found a magic house.
No! No more things!
Also, some of you are going to hate me for this but nix the whole “the house is alive and is also a character” business. Why? Because it’s been done to death. Casita is just Magic Carpet from Aladdin, Ocean from Moana and Gale from Frozen 2. It’s the same character just a house now. Enough.
Okay, so the movie proper begins with the family preparing for 5 year old Antonio Madrigal to receive his gift. This is a difficult time for Mirabel, the youngest daughter of Alma’s daughter Julietta, because the last ceremony was hers and she got bupkiss. After being harrangued by some exposition starved local waifs, Mirabel launches into Welcome to the Family Madrigal, a song which, by all the laws of God, man and screenwriting should not work but does.*
For a song that is basically the musical equivalent of that scene in Meet the Robinsons where Wilbur Robinson gives a power point presentation on the insanely over bloated cast, this is an astonishingly good song, probably the best post-Hamilton thing Miranda has ever written. In a whirlwind of meticulously intricate rhymes and an infectious beat, Mirabel tells the children about her entire family, their powers, their relationships and the fact that her Uncle was almost certainly murdered and the family is covering it up.
Good a time as any to talk about the animation. Disney established its current house style in 2010 with Tangled and in my opinion they are way, waaay overdue a shakeup. But, if they are going to continue to make movies in this style, may they all look as good as Encanto.
I love the skin, hair and faces of these women.
Sorry. Let me rephrase that in a way that sounds less serial-killery.
The way the skin and hair of these characters is rendered is absolutely phenomenal, probably the best of any CGI Disney movie. But the real triumph is how much emotional clarity and humour the characters can express solely through their faces. And, to be clear, this movie absolutely needs that. In his review, Tim Brayton described the movie’s central plot as “a girl talks to each member of her large family, one at a time” and, well, yeah. It’s a movie that’s banking on you caring enough about the relationships of its characters that you won’t mind that there is really very little story. Fortunately, in my opinion at least, that bet pays off because the character designs are so appealing and expressive that for the most part you do care.
So we’ve established that Mirabel doesn’t have a gift and she compensates by being incredibly can-do and positive. Not helping things is Abuela, who used to be really close to Mirabel but, ever since her failed gifting, has kind of treated her like a problem to be managed. Antonio’s ceremony goes off without a hitch and he gets the power to talk to animals. And the knowledge that she really was just a fluke finally breaks through Mirabel’s happy veneer and she shows how much this is killing her. This brings us to our second song, Waiting on a Miracle, an excellent “I want” song where she reveals how much it sucks when your family is the Justice League and you’re Snapper Carr.
After the song, Mirabel sees a crack spreading through the walls of the house and the candle starts to sputter. She runs back and crashes Antonio’s party and warns everyone that the house is breaking apart but when they go and look everything’s fine. Abuela tells everyone to ignore the Crazy Girl who’s talking all crazy and even Julietta warns Mirabel not to go down the path of her brother Bruno, which really sounds like a threat.
Later that night, however, Mirabel overhears Abuela praying and learns that the house’s magic is fading. So Mirabel decides to Nancy Drew this shit. Like any good detective mystery, the first port of call is to consult the local snitch.
Mirabel’s cousin Dolores has super acute hearing which allows her to hear everything going on in the house. She tells Mirabel that on the night of the ceremony she overheard Mirabel’s older sister Luisa’s eye twitching all night long. Now with her first lead, Mirabel confronts Luisa who sings Surface Pressure, another excellent song about how the constant pressure of being the family’s donkey lifter is starting to stress her out. Awesome song, although I will never forgive it for one massive missed oppurtunity.
Anyway, Mirabel and Luisa share a hug and Luisa tells Mirabel that at the exact time the cracks appeared, Luisa felt weak. She also tells Mirabel that Bruno apparently had a vision of the magic failing right before he disappeared, and suggests Mirabel searches his tower.
Each of the Magical Madrigals have their own pocket universe in their room, but since he left, Bruno’s has started to collapse and decay. In the ruins, Mirabel finds glowing green shards that are the remains of Bruno’s vision and gathers them up before the whole place collapses in.
While the family prepares for Isabella’s engagement dinner to local himbo Mariano, Mirabel asks around about this Bruno character. This, of course, leads to We Don’t Talk About Bruno, the song that conquered harder than Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan combined. I really don’t have anything to say about the song that you don’t already know. It’s an ear-wormy masterpiece and that’s that. What I will say is that this is another “building the mountain” moment for the film. The movie deals with the fact that a lot of its cast is technically extraneous by making them so appealing and instantly iconic that even with the limited screen time most of them have, they’re indelibly memorable. Take Felix, for instance:
More or less completely irrelevant to the plot. Hardly any screentime. But damn, you’d miss him, wouldn’t you? Because every time he’s on screen he just lights it up and you actually learn a lot from him and his relationships with the other family members through little tiny details. Abuela is the most emotionally guarded, reserved, almost austere character in the whole movie. So when you see her dancing with Felix…
That tells you a lot about both characters. So yeah, I probably would have advised them not to build the mountain. But now that they did. Damn. That is a fine mountain.
Anyway, Mirabel finally reassembles Bruno’s vision and learns what the terrible threat to the family’s happiness is…
The engagement dinner is a complete disaster as Dolores overhears Mirabel telling her father about the vision and then it just spreads like a virus. The house starts cracking and Pepa loses control of her weather making powers and the whole thing’s a washout. Mirabel sees some rats running off with the pieces of the vision and she follows them through a secret passage where she meets…BRUNO.
So it turns out Bruno did not run away, and has been living secretly in the house this whole time. Bruno tells Mirabel that the night she didn’t get her gift Abuela asked him to look into the future and he saw Mirabel destroying their home (or possibly saving it). To protect Mirabel, he smashed the vision and then left the house which, y’know, he didn’t really have to do. But still, nice gesture.
But Mirabel reasons that visions are like parents. If you don’t like the answer you get the first time, ask another one and maybe you’ll get to go on that sleepover. Reluctantly, Bruno tries again and sees the same vision of Mirabel destroying the Encanto but with a new sequence, Mirabel embracing Isabella and strengthening the candle.
So it’s either hug Isabela or let her family’s home be destroyed which obviously is a tough call.
Mirabel goes to Isabela’s room and tries to apologies but instead makes her so angry she manifests a cactus (not a euphemism, but should be). Isabela has a joyous realisation that she doesn’t just have to make pretty perfect flowers and can grow cool plants that fuck. She realises this through a song that Disney insists is called What Else Can I Do? but is actually called Let it Grow and no one can convince me different.
Mirabel and Isabela embrace and the candle burns more brightly but Abuela shows up and accuses Mirabel of sabotaging the family because she resents not having a gift. Furious, Mirabel tells Abuela that the reason their home is falling apart at the seams is because Abuela has placed such unreasonable expectations on all of them.
And then the house collapses.
Homeless and powerless, the family search for Mirabel. Abuela finally finds her on the banks of the river where she got the miracle that gave her a magic candle that built her a magic house. Abuela tells her how she came to the Encanto and how her grandfather died through the song Dos Oruguitas and she tells her that Mirabel was right. They reconcile and they are then found by Bruno riding a creepily photorealistic horse.
Abuela embraces Bruno and they ride back to the rest of the family.
We get our final song, All of You, where the family rebuild their home with the help of all the townspeople the family helped over the years. Oh, and Isabela gets out of her engagement to Mariano, who’s devastated, but fortunately Dolores is there to snatch up those sloppy seconds.
To thank Mirabel, the family give her the knob to place in the front door which restores the Encanto to life and gives everyone back their gifts. And the movie ends with the family reunited and Mirabel finally at peace with her place in the family.
Encanto is just a tad too flawed for me to call it an unqualified return to greatness, and that we should just pretend that the last few movies didn’t happen. But, it definitely is cause for hope. And even the weird shagginess of its premise and its refusal to streamline its large cast speaks to something that has been sorely missing from Disney movies of this era: Passion. I suspect Raya had a huge cast because they wanted to sell Happy Meal toys. I think that Encanto has a huge cast because they loved these characters too much to leave them on the cutting room floor. And you know what? Sometimes it takes integrity to not kill your darlings. Ultimately, we get a messy but beautiful film with some phenomenal songs and an important message. Welcome back, guys.
Here’s to the next 10 years.
Tempted to go a full twenty, but using computers is cheating.
How would you improve Mirabel as a character? I honestly don’t know how you could.
“Oooooh we’re a Disney movie in the 2020s. We’re too GOOD for villains now.”
Supporting Characters: 19/20
So much love and care went into crafting these characters.
Anything less would be more insufferably contrarian than even I could stomach.
Which means…oh no.
ARBITRARY DEDUCTION OF POINTS FOR CLUNKY SCREENPLAY: -15%
FINAL SCORE: 82%
NEXT UPDATE: 01 September 2022
* Okay everyone, I need your help. What the FUCK does the first kid shout at Mirabel through the window? I hear it as “Hey! When’s Matt’s gift happen?” which makes no sense. The captions on the YouTube video say “Hey! where’s my gift at?” which is clearly not what he’s saying AND makes no sense and the Disney Plus subtitles say “Hey! When’s the magic gift happen?” which makes sense but is CLEARLY not what what he actually says.