You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. If you’re spoiler-shy or merely impatient, you can skip to my TL;DR at the bottom of the post.
Apparently we’re doing movie reviews now. I don’t really know what’s happening either, but I’m gonna roll with it.
This review is happening because I finally watched Encanto (several months after it was released, but we won’t discuss that). It made me cry, but, as is usually the case, I also have some thoughts. My first difficulty was in figuring out the family, mostly because I’ve been having trouble hearing lately and the dialogue and the lyrics can be hard to catch, and it took me a couple of run-throughs to get a good handle on who everybody was. All of that led me to make this family tree, because I am a nut and I happen to have InDesign. I really thought Luisa was the oldest child in her family, given that she seems to have a pretty serious case of eldest sibling complex, but evidently I was wrong.
Set in a secret valley tucked somewhere among the mountains of Colombia, Encanto is the story of the Madrigals, a supernaturally gifted family at the head of a small community. Fifteen-year-old Mirabel introduces her family and explains their gifts, as well as the miracle that protects their community (“The Family Madrigal”). Her grandparents (Pedro and Alma) fled their home village when it was attacked, but were unable to make it to safety before Pedro was killed. In her grief, Alma was granted a miracle of protection, which created a hidden valley where she stood and gifted her with a sentient house, affectionately named Casita. Over the last fifty years, the miracle has granted every Madrigal child in each successive generation a unique magical ability – except Mirabel.
Mirabel has spent the last two-thirds of her life being relentlessly mocked and ignored by family and villagers alike, but, owing to an idea planted in her head when she was five, still longs to make her family proud (“Waiting On A Miracle”). Her big break comes when the miracle begins to show signs of cracking, and, despite heavy discouragement from the rest of the family (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno”), she sets out on a quest to save the miracle. Along the way she begins to repair her fractured relationships with her two older sisters (“Surface Pressure” and “What Else Can I Do?”), and even discovers her estranged Uncle Bruno, who has been living in the walls of the house since leaving the family ten years ago. However, their problems go a bit deeper than a lonely man and his pet rats, and Mirabel’s quest triggers a fight with her grandmother, which ends with the destruction of both the house and the miracle. In the aftermath of the disaster, Alma and Mirabel reconcile, and the villagers help the family rebuild their house (“All Of You”). At the very end, the miracle is reborn, the magic returns, and everyone is happy. (Oh, and Mirabel still has no gift.)
First – and possibly most importantly, given that this is a Disney movie – this movie is gorgeous. The color palette, character design, and animation are immaculate. I particularly love Casita, which is beautifully animated and acts as its own character throughout the movie. The musical numbers are fun, especially “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” (No disrespect to Bruno because I love him, but that song is really a bop.) The cast is amazing, and, though I didn’t love every character, Mirabel is a resourceful, lovable heroine. She is smart, stubborn, and funny, but still kind and thoughtful. Her lack of a gift actually works in her favor, as she has had to learn to fend for herself rather than relying on magic. Stephanie Beatriz is excellent in this role, and her performance brings so much warmth and relatability to the character.
Unfortunately, none of this is enough to distract me from the fact that a large portion of the family is awful. Alma sidelines, berates, and gaslights Mirabel, as she seems to have been doing ever since Mirabel was denied a gift. Her disappointment is palpable, and it sets the tone for the rest of the family. Mirabel’s sisters and cousins – except Antonio, who is absolutely precious and vastly underutilized – ignore and belittle her. Her aunt and uncle don’t do anything to her, but neither do they do anything for her; they barely seem to notice her. Her parents adore her and try to stand up for her, but they are totally ineffective against her grandmother, who doubles down every time they confront her. Bruno is on her side, but he lives with rats and is afraid of his mother, so he’s not much of an ally. It is this discord that is their undoing, as the rift between Alma and Mirabel leads to the loss of the miracle, and they don’t get it back until they’ve learned to be a family again.
It should’ve been a nice lesson, and it would have been if it hadn’t left me with more questions than answers. Though Alma does admit that her trauma caused her to lose sight of what was important, I think this is a massive understatement. Their reconciliation is very quick, and it feels just a little too convenient when Alma has spent the last ten years making Mirabel feel like she has no role in her own family. Her overwhelming emphasis on the value of the gifts seems hypocritical when she has no gift of her own. I have heard people say that Alma’s gift is in keeping the family together, but, having watched Alma spend almost the entire movie trying to shut her own granddaughter out of the rest of the family, I could not disagree more. Her discomfort with Mirabel’s existence morphs into outright hostility with shocking ease when the family learns that Bruno’s last prophecy seemed to implicate Mirabel in the destruction of the miracle, and she becomes more aggressive in her efforts to shut Mirabel down. I would think somebody with a gift for keeping their family together would have made more of an effort to understand what Mirabel was trying to do, rather than dismissing her out of hand; and, though I don’t believe she actually drove him out, it doesn’t seem like she tried very hard to get Bruno back after he left. Even though he is accepted back into the family, there is zero discussion of the ostracization he seems to have suffered since he first received his gift, and everybody moves on to the next song without acknowledging the internal issues that drove him away in the first place.
For a family that prides itself on being a family, the Madrigals don’t seem very familylike. Mirabel’s lack of a gift is treated as a handicap and Bruno’s gift as an oddity, and, though the rest of the family could have found any number of ways to make them feel included, they chose not to. They feel like a cult whose members were bound together by a singular event, which in this case was their miracle. The cracks in the miracle probably originated with Bruno’s departure and then deepened when Alma began to turn against Mirabel, but the responsibility for bridging the gap falls entirely on Mirabel for no truly justifiable reason. I almost get the sense that Mirabel is expected to prove her loyalty before her grandmother can bring herself to accept her as a member of the family, if not to apologize outright for not having received a gift, and that this expectation is supposed to be reasonable. I’ve seen a lot of Mirabel learning to understand her family, which is great, but it needed to be balanced by her family learning to understand her. There is almost no reciprocity, and it bugs me. It takes them the whole movie to get in formation, and their reconciliation is only possible because they are all forced to experience a non-magical life for maybe a few months before their house gets rebuilt. The rebuilding scene was so moving because I thought they were all going to learn that they really are more than the sum of their gifts, especially considering they and their entire community are unhealthily dependent on their magic, but in the end the lesson was lost when the magic came back. And, yes, I get that this is a kids’ movie and the principal audience would have been disappointed if the magic had truly been lost (and yes there was a tiny little corner of me that would also have been sad), but no time like the present to learn that you can’t always get everything you want, right?
I would also have appreciated, like, any explanation of the gifts, which don’t seem as useful as Alma claims they are. Julieta’s and Luisa’s gifts have very clear applications, but the rest of them are puzzling at best. We know from “What Else Can I Do?” that Isabela has never grown anything other than flowers, because it’s never occurred to her that she could. What, then, is the use of her gift? How has she been using it to support her community, beyond providing aesthetic value? Why didn’t they put her in the fields or the gardens to help their crops bloom? I’m assuming they have crops, what else would they eat when they’re living in a super isolated valley and can’t really leave? If she’s only growing flowers and not assisting with the plants that the community needs to survive, and if her designated role in the family is to be “perfect” so she can attract a virile husband and produce magical children, then I have to conclude that the family values her gift because they want to breed from her (see also: CULT). This is a troubling image, not only because it’s disturbing as hell but also because, in terms of sheer scale, Isabela appears to be the most powerful member of the family. If this is really the best use they could find for her gift, they might want to rethink a few things.
Then there are Camilo’s and Dolores’s gifts, which are useful in very specific instances but don’t seem to have any broader applications. Camilo mainly seems to use his for entertainment purposes, though he is also seen using it to help with small tasks, such as hanging up banners. What I’d like to know is whether he can shapeshift into something other than another human. Does he have to have met someone in person in order to take their shape? Can he shapeshift into mythical human-shaped creatures, such as mermaids or centaurs? Can he shapeshift into animals? If he can, can he then talk to Antonio, whose gift allows him to converse with animals, or would he speak with his human voice? Can they combine their gifts to the benefit of the community? We never find out, because neither of their gifts is explored. Antonio does use his gift to assist Mirabel, but, again, his character is underutilized, and the writers mostly seem to have forgotten he was there. This is a common side effect of ensemble casts: Mirabel and Bruno are vivid, but the size of the family isn’t handled particularly well throughout the movie, and the rest of the cast is kind of a blur.
Meanwhile, Dolores is supposed to be able to hear a pin drop from a mile away, but, though she says she hears Bruno muttering and mumbling, she somehow never figures out that he has been living in the walls of the house and carrying out secret repairs. I’m having a hard time imagining that she couldn’t hear him spackling over the cracks in the house. Don’t even get me started on her apparent inability to hear Mirabel breaking Bruno’s room, though I suppose it is possible their rooms all have some kind of soundproof enchantment. Yet even if she had been able to hear these things, I’m still not sure how her gift is useful, because all she does is show up in time to throw Mirabel under the bus. She literally has no other role, and I’m annoyed that she just had to blab about Mirabel breaking into Bruno’s tower. Her mother, Pepa, has her own mini climate and controls it with her emotions, which seems like it might be useful; as with Isabela, however, she is never seen taking her bad moods out to water the crops (though she is briefly seen providing sunlight in a corn field but almost immediately getting into an accidental rainy mood), and her gift is used exclusively for comic relief.
Even if the movie had addressed the gifts more completely, it would still have left me with one very obvious question: why didn’t Mirabel receive a gift? There is an answer, but I doubt it’s the one the writers intended. The clearest answer is that Mirabel doesn’t have a gift because there wouldn’t be a movie if she did. If her ceremony had gone according to plan and she had received a gift, she would not have become estranged from her grandmother, Bruno would not have had a vision of her possibly destroying the miracle, their family would not have been rent, and there would have been absolutely no need to repair her relationship with anybody. If she had had a gift, she would have been a valued member of the family all along, and the miracle would never have cracked. It’s as simple and dissatisfying as that. I believe in this answer, but it still raises more questions. If the miracle depends on the unity of the family, who decides when the family is not sufficiently unified? Is the miracle a living thing, capable of sensing discord, or does it draw its power from the strength of the family bond? Is it a gift granted by capricious gods who withdraw their favors when the recipients aren’t getting along with each other? Or did these same gods feel that Alma was too proud of her miracle? If this is the case, did they then decide to withhold a gift from the next child, who just happened to be Mirabel, to test Alma’s character? Was the subsequent cracking of the miracle the punishment for flunking the test? It wouldn’t be the first time gods decided to administer arbitrary tests with serious consequences. I don’t know what religion the family follows, but there must be some form of deity to have granted the miracle in the first place.
All of this feeds into my primary objection, which is that, like my theoretical gods, I think Alma has taken her miracle too far. She’s built it up over time into an impossible standard with the stated goal of serving the community, but the pomp surrounding the gift ceremony does a tremendous disservice to the children receiving the gifts. The first ceremony, in which Bruno, Julieta, and Pepa received their gifts, was fittingly small and humble; by the time Antonio receives his gift, the ceremonies have acquired a vibe more akin to a quinceañera. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when the guest of honor is only five. The ceremony should be a joyous thing, but Antonio is so anxious at the possibility that his ceremony might fail that he has to be coaxed down the aisle – and why wouldn’t he be anxious, when Alma has amply demonstrated that children with no gifts have no value? And, ultimately, the majority of the gifts received thus far don’t seem to have any real purpose anyway, so I’m not really sure what the point is in all this ceremony when it’s not obvious how the existing gifts are benefiting the community. Aside from Julieta’s and Luisa’s gifts, they’re all flash and no substance. The magic of Encanto has been described as “refreshing,” and for the life of me I have no idea why when I can point to a whole series of books set in a world in which everyone is born with a unique magical talent. Some are more useful than others, of course, which has led the citizens of this world to establish a system of classification to identify the more powerful talents, whose bearers are known as Magicians – look, it’s a long story. Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer duology does something similar, though in this case a magical gift can only be discovered if the bearer maintains skin contact with a special type of metal. Believe me, this is not a new idea.
And yet, despite my itemized list of three viewings’ worth of disagreements, I will still watch this movie over and over again, though admittedly I might skip over Alma’s scenes. I’m taking the story with a grain of salt, but I do still like the movie, and also the songs have burrowed their way into my heart and they won’t leave. Now that I’ve had time to sit down and process and write out what I think, I feel like I can tie a neat little bow around my objections and put them on some quiet shelf, and just enjoy the movie exactly as it is. I doubt if any of the abovementioned thoughts are going to keep me up at night. They don’t ruin the movie for me, and they certainly didn’t prevent me from buying the soundtrack. With all my opinions out of my head and more or less on paper, I can even say that I would rate this movie higher than Frozen. (I feel like I just kicked over a hornets’ nest, but I’ve been kicking over hornets’ nests this whole review, so what’s one more? Maybe I’ll spend some time pulling Frozen apart one of these days, because their government makes no damn sense and it’s really bugging me.)
The movie is cute. 8/10 recommend, with some caveats. I’d watch it again, and actually kinda wanna watch it again right now. Tread cautiously, because the songs will get stuck in your head. This seems like a good place to mention that I got accustomed fairly early to this amazing Nordic multilanguage mix of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” and it’s been doing things to my head. I know the English version a bit better now, but every time this song gets stuck in my head I hear it half in English and half in this Nordic mix even though I don’t know any Nordic languages well enough to be able to tell the difference. :’D