There was somewhat of a role reversal for The Legionnaire this past weekend. Usually, Cameron would be the one to see the animated films given my distaste for them. Yet, the past few days had another unusual twist in terms of my typical movie going experience: company. Under normal circumstances, I will look forward to seeing a movie like House of Gucci, the other option, with a certain amount of trepidation. Based on what I saw in the previews, I had a feeling it was going to be full of awful people doing awful things to one another. I am usually wary of making any assumptions, but such are my instincts on this one. As for the one I did see, Disney’s newest cartoon saga Encanto, what buoyed me was the knowledge the Lin-Manuel Miranda did the music. I do not like his most famous production, Hamilton (2015), but he redeemed himself with this year’s In the Heights. I love that movie, despite it being a musical, and I watched it again last night and cried once more. It remains the only film for which I have done two reviews for this blog. Today’s film is also a musical. I thought, too, it would be a better choice for the people with which I saw it. If you are familiar with Miranda’s work, you will recognize his influence. At the same time, I thought it was the least appealing aspect. I guess I am reverting to my musical hating ways.
We start Encanto with an elderly lady, Abuela Alma Madrigal (voiced by Mariá Cecilia Botero, singing done by Olga Merediz) explaining to her granddaughter how their village got to be in its location, and its special gift. When she was a young mother, warfare drove them from their first home. As they fled into the woods, soldiers caught up with their group. Alma’s husband Pedro wades into a stream, telling the others to flee and sacrificing himself to allow them to escape. This act triggers what she describes as a miracle. The jungle around them springs up and blocks further pursuit, a magical house comes together to shelter them, and the Madrigal family are imbued with powers. The source of these incredible acts is a candle, and as long as it burns for their family, they will continue to have these gifts. The granddaughter Alma tells these things to is Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), and this occurs on the day she is supposed to receive her own gift. Yet, when she stands before the glowing door marking where her room would be, a chamber that would match with her new talents, the house evaporates the opening. This means no powers for her. All her siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, can doing amazing things, but not her. Still, she takes it in stride, and does her best to help out with the family wherever and however she can. Her failure to achieve anything beyond the ordinary is the last time the Madrigal family had the ceremony. Now it is time for her young cousin, Antonio (voiced by Ravi Cabot-Conyers), to receive his gift, and many are anxious to see everything happen as usual. When it does, Mirabel tries to hide her frustration out of love for her cousin, but it brings back lingering bitterness as to why she is not as blessed as the others. Separating herself from them, she begins to see cracks developing in the house, a sign that there are problems with the Madrigal family. When Mirabel informs Alma about them, the matriarch protests that she is unable to see the flaws in the structure, particularly not when they are celebrating Antonio’s achievement. The next day, Mirabel confronts her super strong sister Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow), who Mirabel suspects might sense that something is amiss in the house. After trying to brush it off as mere stress due to all her responsibilities, Luisa directs Mirabel to find Uncle Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo). Bruno has precognition, and one day he saw a vision of the downfall of the Madrigal house. This horrified Alma, and Bruno too, causing him to run away. When Mirabel makes her way to his room in the house, she finds broken pieces of glass that formed when Bruno had his terrifying perception. It contains an image of her with the house crumbling behind her. She takes it, hoping to show it to Alma, but that night there is an important dinner. Mirabel’s other sister, Isabela (voiced by Diane Guerrero), who is seemingly perfect in every way and can make flowers appear at will, is about to be proposed to by the son of a family in town. This is important for Alma as it means their legacy will continue. Unfortunately, everyone is nervous that the magic is fading, and Alma blames Mirabel for ruining the dinner. In taking her leave from the debacle, Mirabel discovers a secret passage off the stairs. Entering it, she finds Bruno. She shows him the broken glass, and he explains her importance to the family. Not knowing how, she convinces him to have another vision, and it shows reconciliation as the way forward. At first, Mirabel believes it is with Isabela, who is even more furious with her than Alma. When they make up, it opens up new avenues for Isabela’s powers, but further angers Alma. This is what brings the house crashing down, and the candle goes out. Mirabel blames herself, but when Alma sees her granddaughter’s sorrow, Alma admits to her that she does not have any magic either, and that she had become to fixated on the Madrigal legacy. This was the true reconciliation Bruno saw, and it works to restore their magic, and a new house is built on the foundations of the old one.
Basically, Encanto means enchanted. It speaks to the magical powers wielded by most of the members of the Madrigal family. Yet, the message here is that the strongest magic in the world are family bonds. The cracks in the house are meant to symbolize the growing divisions in it. You can understand this from Alma’s perspective. When she loses Pedro and the house and surrounding area manifest themselves, they are the remaining link she has to her beloved husband. It explains her determination to see this legacy continue. When Mirabel turns out seemingly to be as ordinary as her, Alma fears that the attachment to her deceased husband might be fading. Antonio’s reception of his ability to communicate with animals is the relief Alma had been seeking. As such, you can understand, if not sympathize, with her reaction to Mirabel suggesting that everything is not as rosy as it should be. Mirabel, because she does truly love and care about her family, lashes out at her grandmother, accusing the matriarch of being the real reason that things are going wrong. The film’s protagonist is clearly Mirabel, but in this case she errs, too. The film does tell us that there is nothing that family cannot fix. However, it takes willing participants who are able to recognize their faults and do something to correct them. Mirabel, while in the right, lets pride get the better of her, which leads to yelling. Such impassioned arguments happen with families, but they rarely solve anything. Case in point: right after this blow-up, the house crumbles. At the same time Mirabel realizes her need to apologize, Alma comes to understand how she had not seen her granddaughter as she should be seen: the true gift, better than any of the magic. It makes for a nice character arc for each.
There are some overt, and inferred references to Catholicism in Encanto. I was surprised when, for a movie about people with magical abilities, their village not only had a church but also a priest. Further, Alma and Pedro apparently had a church wedding, albeit before their fleeing from their first home. It is also nice to see the Madrigals refer to their powers as a blessing, and how they use them for the benefit of the village. Some have likened the saints to having magical properties, although this is not the correct way to look at them. Each have certain aspects of life to which they give their patronage. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, is the patron of animals, and one of the most famous moments of his life came when he gave a sermon to them. At the same time, they did not talk back to him, at least not as recorded in history. The point I am trying to make is that God can give people special abilities at different moments, and even the Bible talks of the Jesus’ disciples performing miracles. What is absolutely vital to remember, though, is that the saints did these things not on a whim, but in order to lead people closer to God, and not by any special ability of their own. Granted, the characters in the movie use their powers for the benefit of others. Yet, they also use them for trivial matters, and that is when it becomes witchcraft. While a sympathetic character, you can see some of this taken in a different direction with Bruno. His power is perhaps the most doctrinally acceptable one as there have been many prophets given visions of the future. I also appreciate that he uses them sparingly. Still, he is also the most superstitious, and that is not ideal. We all have our little superstitions, but the problem with them is they suggest powers that are not of God, or that He would act impulsively. He works for our benefit, whether we acknowledge it or not, and it is difficult to see how stepping on a crack and breaking your mother’s back, or any other such nonsense, benefits anyone.
Overall, Encanto gets my seal of approval, even if it is seemingly a movie about sorcery. The one moment that tempers my recommendation is when, at the end, they all have their powers returned. There is a sequence where they work together as a family, with the help of the villagers and not their magic, to rebuild their house. When Mirabel is given the doorknob to open the front door, thus completing the reconstruction effort, the magic comes back and everyone has their abilities once more. Personally, I think it would have driven home the point better had they all remained normal, underscoring how family is more powerful than anything else, but whatever. In any case, I am sure it is more full of warm-fuzzies than House of Gucci, and I like warm fuzzies.