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If I had a sister,
I would resist her.

If I had a brother,
“Why?” I’d ask Mother.

But since I do not,
I alone call the shots.

This child is only,
Perhaps a bit lonely.

It might have been nice
To have brothers’ advice.

I’d be a good sport
For a sister’s support.

Perhaps I’d not mind
That our lives intertwined.

To have more relations…
That’s just more frustrations!

If I had had brothers,
They’d deny me my druthers.

If I had a sister,
I’d cease and desist her.

I’d hate him, refund her…
And yet, I still wonder.

MPA rating:  PG

It’s always nice or at least assuring when you can watch a movie and know exactly how you feel about it by the end. Whether you loved everything about it or found it a waste of time or just have that all-too-common meh reaction, at least you know your own opinion. But what about the gray space where you’re torn between a film’s merits and its problems, never sure which outweighs the other to turn the thumb up or down. Encanto is just such a film for me, a Disney animation that is equal parts marvel and mess but ultimately left me glad to know that a flawed film can still be a good one.

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Set in Colombia seemingly in the early 1900s, Encanto focuses on the amazing Madrigal family, whose matriarch/Abuela (María Cecilia Botero) founded the town decades before with the aid of a magical candle that granted her a sentient house to live in and later supernatural abilities to her children and grandchildren. For every child growing up, a ceremony imparts a magical “gift” for their and the town’s benefit, but young Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) was spurned and left feeling anything but special. A few years later, when the candle’s magic seems to be dying, she decides to prove her worth by saving her family’s miracle.

There’s a lot going on with Encanto and its large cast, and, like Eternals, I’ve seen some suggest that it would have been better suited for a miniseries instead of a film to help flesh out the characters. Yet the film is a wonder at fast-paced characterization, in large part due to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s outstanding soundtrack of original songs. More than any other Disney film since Tangled, the songs are deeply integrated into the storyline, with musical numbers introducing and resolving entire subplots while making the exposition catchy and fun. Miranda’s Latin-inspired beats and trademark rapid-fire rhymes are first-rate Disney tunes, as evidenced by how often I’ve replayed them, especially “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” and the surprisingly deep and relatable “Surface Pressure.”

Among the film’s other strengths are its vibrant animation that turns the often poorly depicted nation of Colombia into a land of bright colors and magic, as well as a diverse Hispanic cast that includes the first Disney musical protagonist to wear glasses. So with all these pros, what’s so wrong with the film that it left me initially torn? Well, what’s left? The plot. Encanto has a good story and themes about suppressed familial trauma, the pressure of expectations, and the ripples caused by violence and displacement, which I’ve seen struck a chord with people of Latin American descent but are universal enough to be appreciated by folks like me as well, who may not have a large, close-knit family unit.

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Oddly enough for Disney, the magic is where it stumbles. Little to no clear explanation is given for basically anything magical that happens, like how the candle became magical, why Mirabel was excluded, why the magic began to fade, or why the prophetic visions of Mirabel’s uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) become vague and hard to interpret when he foresees the events of the film. This has resulted in an abundance of headcanons and theories about the film’s open-ended elements (“maybe Mirabel’s gift is her connection to the house”, “maybe she’s meant to be the successor to Abuela, who also lacks superpowers”, etc.), which are honestly fascinating, but I would have preferred that the film itself actually answer some of these questions. (One theory I liked was that, at her door ceremony, Mirabel touched the candle and then wiped her hands on her dress before touching the doorknob, perhaps transferring the magic to herself. It’s a good theory, but the film doesn’t bring any attention to it to indicate that was the filmmakers’ intent.) I realize this lack of explanation supposedly ties into the Colombian literary genre of “magical realism” where fantastical elements are often left unexplained, but these are aspects inherent to the plot.

Ultimately, the film simply wants the audience to “go with it” and accept what it presents without overthinking, and doing so certainly helped my enjoyment on a second viewing. Many of the family members’ gifts reflect their personality and character, such as Mirabel’s sister Luisa using her super-strength to bear every family burden or their mother being able to heal injuries with her meals (mom-cooked meals have definitely helped me feel better before). So on some level, the magic could be viewed as a giant metaphor for the roles and talents of any large family, but without more explanation, it’s something of a mixed metaphor. Yet it still clearly speaks effectively to the pressures on older siblings and feelings of inadequacy in younger ones.

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While I wrestled with it for a while, I eventually decided that Encanto’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Some naysayers have pointed out its flaws and extended them to the good parts to make the film seem like a total catastrophe, which it’s not. It’s almost surprising that Disney would be behind a comparatively small-scale, introspective feature like this, boasting largely unknown voice actors and the rarity of a large and intact family, albeit one with issues. (Some friends of mine said they ought to do a follow-up short featuring the whole cast going through a therapy session.) For both entertainment and plot progression, it relies on Miranda’s music to do much of the heavy lifting, but the songs are up to the task, and there are so many cultural details and fast-moving gags amid the gorgeous animation that it’s well worth repeat viewing. Encanto is far from perfect, but, as Mirabel’s sister Isabela finds, perfection does not define one’s worth.

Best line: (Mirabel, to Abuela) “We are a family because of you, and nothing could ever be broken that we can’t fix together.”

Rank:  List-Worthy

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