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Happy families are all alike; every magical family is
unhappy in its own magical way

dirs: Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith


You may ask yourself: why would a man your age voluntarily subject yourself to a new Disney animated movie, when you no longer have a child of an age where the watching of such films is not only necessary, but mandatory?

Honestly, while I wave my hands at all *this* that’s happening now, the very thisness of it all, the crushing familiarity of where the world is at the moment, I just wanted to feel some delight, some joy, and while such a thing is not always guaranteed by Disney, it has a pretty good track record delivering with its mainline animated efforts.

I watched it, on a night I usually reserve for horror flicks or brutal action monstrosities, because I think my soul needed it, and I was rewarded. Encanto is up there with the “good” recent animated films Disney proper has put out, since it started having to compete with Pixar (before buying Pixar, of course). I don’t yet know if this has the longevity of something like Tangled, Moana or Frozen (I mean, Frozen was a global phenomenon, but no-one talks about Frozen II), but it’s definitely up there.

It does have some catchy tunes, but however great “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is, it’s not going to invade the ears and minds of every reluctant parent the way that “Let It Go” is probably sung even on the outer planets of our solar system.

I also like the fact, love the fact that if you could somehow resurrect Walt Disney himself, and play him the entirety of the movie, he would probably die from shock that an animated movie from the studio he created would have so many people with different skin shades in it, and that they weren’t playing happy slaves on a plantation.

It would kill him all over again, and that’s probably a good thing. We don’t need old racist zombies returning from the grave, craving our brains, money or votes.

The movie is set in Colombia, but it’s kinda impossible to say when, and it’s kinda irrelevant. A mother and her husband, clutching three babies, flee from either brutal government forces or heroic freedom fighters. Either way, the machetes they carry seek to end their lives and the lives of their babies. The father sacrifices himself, but somehow, through his action, and the mother’s supernaturally powerful grief, a candle is imbued with some kind of magical energy which allows this woman to construct an enchanted house, an enchanted village cut off from the world.

It’s not just the mother and her three littlies – there were other villagers fleeing with them. But once the miracle happens, the central family gets a magical house, but the rest of the villagers get to bask in the warming glow of their benevolence.

That woman grows older, is known by all as Abuela, which years of Dora the Explorer taught me means grandmother, but all her kids, and their kids, upon reaching a certain age, unlock a new door in the magical, sentient house they call Casita, which grants them magical powers.

Everyone else except our main character, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), that is. Not only doesn’t she have powers; she’s treated sometimes like they’re worried her ordinariness will rub off and make everyone else dull as well.

In truth she probably has some resentment towards the others, too. Her older sister with the luxurious hair and the power to, um, make flowers grow everywhere is a natural antagonist. Perfectly natural to resent a sister like that. Everyone else in the village, especially Abuela act like the sun shines out of Luisa’s puckered, um, sunflowers, and they look at Mirabel like she just stepped in dog shit: with pity and disgust.

It’s unfair, I tells ya. The burdens of keeping everything together, keeping the magic in place, is enough for the sainted Abuela to become a bit of a tyrant. Who knows – maybe her cruel efforts to get everyone to conform to her conservative idea of who people should be and what people should do will actually cause the outcome she fears most?

What a turn up for the books that would be, did not see that coming. Mirabel starts perceiving that there are cracks in the foundations, glitches in the matrix, and that something has gone wrong with their personal miracle. The candle starts to flicker, and every time she tries to find out what’s going on, or what happened with Bruno (shush, we don’t talk about Bruno no more), everyone, but especially her hateful grandmother, try to shut her down and gaslight her, telling her she’s loco.

But she ain’t loco. She’s not even loca. She’s our plucky heroine, from a long line of plucky heroines, determined and hard-working enough to see it through and, we hope, save the magic house, save the enchanted village, and vanquish the evil dragon of a grandmother.

The standard way heroines in Disney actualise their dreams is by leaving home, confronting the great unknown, facing danger and death, growing, making choices, making sacrifices.

Most of that applies not at all here. She barely leaves the house, she never leaves the village. Her adventure consists of finding out what the deal is with Bruno, whose power was prophecy, finding a way to forgive her Poison Ivy-like sister for being better than her, and then rebuilding what her abuela’s obsessive white-knuckle coercive control destroys, which could be everything.

It doesn’t feel like there’s much at stake, really. Everything I’ve written about the grandmother is totally overstated, in that she’s not a Gothel-like selfish villain who needs to be destroyed – she’s just mildly misguided. Bruno turns out to be a little misunderstood. The haughty and stereotypically beautiful sister hates having to be perfect all the time.

Without even spoiling anything – after all, ‘tis Disney – you know that everything’s going to be okay and no-one will get hurt in almost any way, and everything that’s destroyed will be rebuilt, and any magic lost will be regained.

But it still didn’t matter. It was as enchanting as its title would suggest, with gorgeous animation and impressively expressive characters, and incredible backgrounds. And it didn’t outstay its welcome, wrapping things up in just over 90 minutes.

It bugged me a bit that they kept emphasising that all this was taking place in Colombia, but it didn’t really engage with Colombian culture, history or customs on even the most superficial of levels. It’s pretty much a generic Latin American idealised town, without something remotely on the level of the Mexican Day of the Dead aesthetics of Pixar’s Coco or The Book of Life.

And anyone that mentions the concept of ‘magical realism’, Colombia and then feels compelled to mention the name of the only Colombian author they’ve ever heard of, being the legendary Gabriel Garcia Marquez, should bite their tongue or typing fingers. This isn’t ‘magical realism’, it’s just magical magic. Plus Marquez hated that phrase to describe his writing.

He probably wouldn’t have loved this, but that’s okay. He died an old man, and old men can’t be expected to enjoy lush, colourful, female-led ensemble pieces that celebrate family and communities coming together to help each other in times of joy and tragedy.

Although… the references to the Thousand Day War, or the conflict that makes the abuela when young run out of fear for their lives… that did make me think the writers at the very least skimmed the Wikipedia page for Marquez while they were slapping this script together.

Let’s not even get into the political / colonial / colourism aspects of having this powerful family (mostly light skinned latinos and latinas) lording it over the rest of the village because they have the magical powers. All rulers rule with fear, and this dreaded Abuela is no different to any other conquistador. Anyone messes with the family, with her power base, and she sends out super-strong Luisa to hurl their donkeys into the sky.

Yeah, let’s not get into that. I laughed, I cried a fair few times, I was delighted by this tale about black sheep in families not always being so because they’re abusive arseholes or thieving addicts, but that sometimes the role a family tries to impose on them isn’t right, isn’t fair, and breaking out of it can help everyone.

And differently-abled stars like Mirabel can get to be the ones who save everyone’s bacon, just by believing in themselves more than what the people around them do.

8 times my shameful superpower is making alcohol disappear without a trace out of 10

“I will never be good enough for you, will I? No matter how hard I try... no matter how hard any of us try.” – yep, sounds about right - Encanto