This release is yet another in a long string of recent one-word-only Disney movie titles, but the similarities end there. This is not a typical release by any company, and is now one of my favorite films. It is a surprisingly well-executed, elegantly crafted masterpiece. I will cover it with scattered spoilers, touching on the major details that make it so much better than average.
Encanto centers itself around the Madrigals, a family full of variously gifted people who reside in the mountains of Columbia. Each person born is given a gift that in some way enables them to contribute extraordinarily to the unit - even their house itself is enchanted. Whether it's Luisa with her Atlas-like capability to carry the burdens of others, Dolores's ability to hear pretty much anything, or Antonio - the friend to all animals, the Encanto house is sprawling with diversity. It's all thanks to a magic candle that gave their grandmother Alma a second chance at life after losing her husband to a band of raiders. It is this candle that enabled Alma's family to build a new home after the loss of their village, and it has since granted new, useful powers to each baby born. Each member of the family is given their own special room with their name and appearance magically carved into their door.
All appears to be well until a child named Mirabel is born, who does not receive a gift (or a room). Her uniqueness seems to be only that she has nothing to add to her otherwise long list of talented relatives. She is repeatedly shunned, excluded from events, and asked to generally stay out of everyone's way so that her normalcy doesn't cause problems for the ones who can just simply do it better.
More so than anyone however, Mirabel is determined to link with her family, and warns them when she notices cracks forming alongside their house during a busy celebration. As everyone rushes to see for themselves, the cracks have vanished in just the nick of time. This leads the Madrigal family to blame Mirabel for dreaming up the deterioration of their household, and then for the decline of their unity as one by one people begin losing control of their powers. Afterward, Mirabel overhears their abuela muttering to herself in front of the candle in the highest room of the Encanto home. It is revealed that Alma has been aware of the candle's decaying power for some time, and she is set on preventing anyone from finding out because she does not know how to keep everyone together in the event of its sudden absence.
Mirabel, who herself has lost nothing during this sudden panic among the population, decides to investigate a long-disappeared relative named Bruno who is not spoken of by anyone for any reason. There's an entire song dedicated to the fear surrounding this man, all because his gift of farsight had granted him a damning vision of the future. Mirabel's curiosity around his mysterious departure deepens when no one will give it to her straight, and after putting some clues together she discovers that in fact, Bruno never left the family at all - he's literally living inside the wall with some rats, as close as he can be without being found and rejected.
At first, Bruno is predictably terrified to see anyone other than his rodent partners in isolation, and is reluctant to speak about the details of his vision. That is until Mirabel convinces him he has nothing to lose, considering his current position in life. He doesn't much understand what he saw back then either, and with nowhere else to turn they recreate the circumstances that enabled him to have that experience the first time. Though they still do not know why Mirabel herself is a symbol in the vision, they are newly able to determine that her sister Isabela has a role yet to play.
Though the two sisters have long been at odds, it is from Mirabel's efforts to make lasting amends with Isabela that a chain reaction is struck. At dinner that night, no one is able to avoid the gossip floating around (thanks to Dolores) that something is indeed going on. Alma's efforts to suppress the worry and doubt for the entire film have failed, and before long, the magic candle forces the Madrigals to deal with their growing weakness - an overdependence on magic and gifts, while de-emphasizing the family members themselves. The entire house collapses, and as everyone flees the avalanche of planks and splinters, only one person is protected by the rubble itself - Mirabel.
It is Mirabel's lack of a gift that enables her to be the catalyst for change moving forward. Alma realizes that her protective nature over the candle has grown problematic, and in so doing she has forgotten the personal value of each of her relatives beyond their talents. Bruno is welcomed back as it is realized he and Mirabel were not a sign of trouble, but of renewal - and the house is rebuilt without the aid of magical convenience. The candle is restored to its former position atop the new Encanto, with recent events leaving behind an important reminder to preserve that which is most sacred.
It's worth noting that the film features no agenda leveraged, no afflicting, post-modern diseases or political angles. It's clean of all that unnecessary filth, and focuses on universal storytelling from front to back. Further of note is the lack of a surprise, twist villain as the master behind it all - their grandmother's obsession with the candle and general neglect of her family starts and remains the persistent issue that must be solved. This is very important, as all of the messaging delivered in this movie would have fallen flat otherwise.
The songs are just awesome. There are a ton of great rhymes, with stunning transitions between keys that constantly leave you wanting more. The presentation reminds me of Aladdin, and the 'epic' factor is definitely there, especially for a new generation. They aren't riddled with the trendy hallmarks of lazy singing/songwriting found in much of modern pop music, either. It's not just a breath of fresh air, it kicks ass. There aren't any pretentious moments at all, and I honestly can't pick a favorite track.
Character development doesn't ever feel forced. I have to say these things because, well, since around the turn of the millennium most movie/show-based character development has been relegated to last-minute janitor work. Surrounded by writers who want everyone at odds with each other for your standard pick between forty-five minutes or two hours, Encanto recognizes that it's time for a change. Our main character is naturally hopeful, and the film has a colorful, well-written script that stays family-friendly. The culture is also barely present; it is in no way a statement of superiority, or a story of oppression. Instead, its lack of emphasis in this area inspires the audience to learn more of their whereabouts. Less is more! The loudest voice is often discarded first.
One depressing aspect of the movie (though also uplifting) is that the guardian-type personality of abuela Alma is given a meaningful redemption arc. While this is obviously a good thing, it rarely occurs in practice on Earth - most often these types grind their heels into the dirt as they prepare to give it all up for their illusions. She doesn't turn into an evil witch, or threaten to go scorched-earth policy on everyone. Instead, she is written an appreciable, believable and inspiring new phase in life that I would like to see more of. These types are just as capable of playing their role in the universe, and seeing the error of their ways. They are potentially very empowering and upholding individuals, deeply valued by any community or world.
Another important mention is Encanto's exceptional placement of symbolism. This film is absolutely packed with visual metaphors. The layering is awe-inspiring at times. One of my favorites - as the butterflies surround Alma and Mirabel and begin to scatter to the wind, the implication is that their reunion of values has cast out a new butterfly effect's worth of possibilities for the future of the Madrigals.
When I say universal storytelling, I am referring as well to the concept of choosing between an infinity of timelines with and based on our actions. When Alma refuses to admit that the magic itself is the problem, the timeline shifts. She could have prevented the house from collapsing. Since she did not, a more direct effect is applied to get her attention. This is not out of spite, but merely the universe sending a message that change must come, and that it is up to every individual how and when it does. As long as one complies nothing is lost, no matter how long it takes - the benefits will simply manifest differently. The butterflies represent new timelines available to them, now that they have begun to course-correct their values. Mirabel was another such indicator that a change was needed, and Bruno before her.
In short, Mirabel's power was not to destroy the Madrigal family, but save it.
Encanto serves as a reminder that we can all do better. Its reception is well-deserved - it's a great movie. It's something you can feel good about showing your kids; you just want them to see it because you know it's coming from someplace that's real and meaningful. Its timeless concept applies to literally everything, enabling it to age well and reach any audience. It's honestly far deeper than anything I've said here. The universal quality is infectious after being surrounded by decades of mostly dark and decadent narratives, and I hope it marks a return to form. The world could use a little hope.
January 25, 2022