Movie review: Encanto

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

There was once a time, not all that long ago, when grief was treated as a linear, open-and-shut case, something that struck you, affected you and then left you alone to rebuild your life.

That view of grief was simplistic at best, and as we’ve grown in our understanding of how it affects people, we have seen popular culture increasingly reflect the non-linear, complex, back-and-forth nature of loss which never operates the same way and manifests markedly divergent ways in different people.

In the case of Colombian family matriarch, Abuela Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero), grief has taken the form of unyielding devotion to a magical legacy created fifty years earlier when a candle she was carrying to light the way as she and her beloved husband Pedro fled armed conflict with their triplets – Pepa (Carolina Gaitán), Julieta (Angie Cepeda) and Bruno (John Leguizamo) suddenly took on supernaturally protective powers.

Kind of like the Olympic torch meets Mutant X, this candle built a sentient casita (cottage) in which the ever-growing family live, all of them imbued with special gifts such as superhuman strength (Julieta’s daughter Luisa, voiced by Jessica Darrow), control of the weather (Pepa) or the ability to heal through food (Julieta), which they selflessly use to help the village which has grown around the house.

Benevolent landowners who spend their days helping the villagers with home repairs, medical help and a host of other issues, the Madrigals appear to be noblesse oblige personified, a close and loving family with spectaculary unique gifts who use them solely for the betterment of others.

So far, so effortlessly altruistic.

And yet as you dig beneath the surface of this beneficent idyll, it quickly becomes apparent that not everything is sunshiney lovely; for instance, Mirabel, one of Julieta’s children, who is assured by her mother and father Agustín (Wilmer Valderrama) that she is special no matter what, has mysteriously not been given any kind of magical gifting leaving her an outlier in a family where supernatural abilities are the default, imbued at a coming-of-age ritual where they are given a room of their own in the casita which is effectively, an expansive world unto its own.

While Mirabel works overtime to earn her place in the family, the exact dynamics of which are playfully and exuberantly outlined in the expositional song “The Family Madrigal” – all songs are by Lin-Manuel Miranda, for whom Encanto is his fourth major musical contributory release of the year after Vivo, In the Heights and Tick, Tick…Boom!(which he also directed) – and maintains an optimistically upbeat facade, she feels the sting of her ordinariness, at least in familial terms, every day.

Her Abuela treats her with barely-concealed disdain for failing to be given a gift, treating her, much like Bruno about whom no one is allowed to speak (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno”), as an outcast of sorts who threatens the family’s heritage and continued good works.

Still mired in her grief from the loss that caused the candle to come alive in the first place, Abuela’s overriding concern is the continuation of their miracle, sometimes she oversees with ruthless efficiency, the welfare of her family be damned in a sense.

There’s no doubt she loves them, they mean the world to her after all, but only in the context of their magical existence, a clear case of the cart before the horse, a dynamic that flows solely from decades-old grief that impels her in ways that leave the family hurting in myriad ways even as they change lives around them for the better.

While there is a great deal of enthusiastically colourful singing and dancing in Encanto, with each song presented as an imaginative escapist piece of entertainment alive with colour, character and Latin American cultural richness – the animation is flawlessly, vivaciously vivid, a tonic for the beige-weary, whitewashed soul – the narrative pivots almost entirely around themes of family and belonging, grief and loss and ways a new beginning can quickly become a fossilised end if not tended to properly.

It may sound like a lot for an animated feature film to integrate without feeling unwieldy or clunky, but save for its slightly shoehorned, a little-too-obvious and top heavy with meaning ending, Encanto remains a bright, light and spirit0lifting exploration of how grief can unwittingly entrap a family and how selflessness can set it free once again.

Channelling a very Pixar mindset, where weighty existential themes are seamlessly woven into animation that is never less than gloriously, beautifully alive and through a story which is simple and yet affectingly complex all at once, Encanto is also capable of having a lot of fun.

Time and again poor put-upon Mirabel is given some very funny lines, whether it’s realising her new Toucan “friend” Pico (performed by Alan Tudyk) will be a fair weather friend at best or doing her best to stop the village children from asking what her gift is, all of them designed to first amuse before pulling back and leaving a necessary narrative sting in the nail.

If sugar does indeed help the medicine go down, then humour is employed in much the same way in Encanto which marries comedy and more serious aspects to winning effects, a crafting an often moving tale that understands life is always a messy mix of light and dark and that even in the worst of times, laughter can briefly prevail.

Briefly being the operative word here for while comedy is judiciously used to set the scene and bolster almost uniformly rich characterisation, Encanto is a film that sits very firmly in a poignantly, emotionally evocative place while still remaining accessible enough for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

Much of this accessibility comes from the buoyantly upbeat songs which, in true musical fashion, belie the great emotional heavy lifting they undertake, each of them reinforcing the fact that while the Madrigals have been blessed, and have in turn blessed others, that there is some great pain and dislocation at their centre.

Much of this is centred in the winningly emotive protagonist Mirabel who has retained the willingness to truly sacrifice herself in the service of family and others that her Abuela has lost and who rather being the end of the family’s miracle, as Bruno’s much-damned precognitive gift seems to indicate, might just be its salvation.

Mirabel is the beating vibrant heart at the centre of Encanto, a film which while it may not be perfect, does a great deal to counter the idea that grief is forever and there is no coming back from the finality of the end, doing so in songs that are richly meaningful, characters that are compellingly and likably alive, and a story that lightly warms the heart while delivering some emotional knockout blows that last beyond the colourful and memorable final act.

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