In recent years, I’ve made a conscious effort not to complain about plot holes, or even to use the phrase “plot holes”. It’s a highly controversial and loosely defined phrase, too often abused by agitators making arguments in bad faith. What’s more, it’s entirely possible that a perceived plot hole might have been given some explanation that a less attentive viewer didn’t catch. Maybe something went unexplained because an explanation was unnecessary to the narrative, or an implied part of the “suspension of disbelief” buy-in for a particular movie.
Then there’s Encanto.
The premise begins with a village of people escaping an armed conflict, and I already have so many questions the film is never going to answer. The film obviously has some kind of Hispanic/Latinx vibe going on, but there’s never even the slightest hint as to where in South/Central America we are. There are numerous countries and cultures in this part of the world, to say nothing of the numerous armed conflicts seen there throughout history, and we don’t have the first clue as to which culture we’re dealing with, who the armed invaders are, or what the conflict is about.
I know this is skipping ahead a bit, but this is ultimately a movie about home and family. This is a plot about whether our protagonist is able to keep her family together and keep her house from falling apart literally and figuratively. Losing this particular home means that all these refugees will be back at the mercy of the outside world that drove them away, and this is barely even mentioned in the film! It would’ve added so many layers to the plot and added so much to the stakes of the movie if this external threat was more concrete.
Just look at The Secret of Kells, which concerned a town’s efforts to defend itself against a monstrous band of invading vikings. Look at the first Hotel Transylvania, which established early and often why the castle was built as a refuge away from humans. Hell, just look at Disney’s own Raya and the Last Dragon from earlier this year — that movie went on for freaking days about what the Druun were and why they needed to be kept at bay! And this movie keeps its invading forces in silhouette, without a single word about who or what they are, how they operate, or whether they’ll be waiting to restart the genocide when the village is vulnerable again. Pathetic.
(EDIT: Just saw a clip of a musical number, which prominently shows “COLOMBIA” in big block letters in the background. Don’t know how I missed that little clue during the first watch.)
Anyway, Alma Madrigal (voiced by María Cecilia Botero) ran away with her triplet children when her husband was brutally slain. At the moment of his heroic sacrifice, the candle Alma was carrying picked up magical powers. In short order, a sentient house sprouted up around the castle, and then a wall of circular mountains sprang up around the house, providing enough space for a village isolated from the rest of the world.
None of this magic is ever explained.
Under Alma’s leadership, all of the refugees set to work building their own houses and they’ve got a sweet little village set up in short order. Meanwhile, Alma and her Madrigal clan take up residence in the magic house — affectionately nicknamed “Casita” — which provides a magical gift for every child born into the Madrigal family when they come of age.
- Alma doesn’t seem to have a gift, but she holds considerable power as the matriarch of the Madrigal clan, the de facto leader of the village, and the keeper of the magic candle.
- Pepa (Carolina Gaitan) is one of Alma’s daughters, and her mood affects the weather. She’s married to Felix (Mauro Castillo), a non-powered villager who’s charming and sensitive enough to help stabilize Pepa’s mood swings.
- Bruno (an alarmingly funny and sensitive performance from John Leguizamo, of all people) is the brother of the triplets and the black sheep of the family. His power to see the future turned out to be more trouble than it was worth, so he left for places unknown and nobody talks about him anymore.
- Julieta (Angie Cepeda) is the third of the triplets, and her cooking is literally good enough to heal the sick and injured. She’s married to Agustin (Wilmer Valderrama, what are you doing here?), who’s your stereotypical awkward and adorkable father figure.
Moving on to the third generation, we’ve got…
- Dolores (Adassa), Pepa’s daughter, with hearing so incredibly sensitive that she’s borderline omniscient.
- Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), Pepa’s middle child, who can shapeshift to look like other people.
- Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) is Pepa’s youngest child and the baby of the family. During his coming-of-age ceremony at the start of the film, he picks up the ability to talk with animals.
- Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is Julieta’s oldest daughter, with the ability to make flowers bloom. She’s perfectly beautiful, she makes everybody perfectly happy… she’s perfect. Literally and completely perfect. That’s her whole deal.
- Luisa (Jessica Darrow) is Julieta’s middle daughter, blessed with superhuman strength.
Last but not least is our protagonist. Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is Julieta’s youngest daughter and she… has no power. For reasons unknown, her coming-of-age ceremony came and went and she never got a gift out of it. This has led to significant concern that Casita’s magic might be fading, and those fears turn out to be well-founded when Casita inexplicably starts falling into disrepair after Antonio’s ceremony.
So what we’ve got here is a straightforward “sibling rivalry” scenario. Mirabel loves her family and they all love her, but she doesn’t seem to fit in and she’s worried that she’ll never be as great as the rest of her family is. She’s trying to find her way because she doesn’t have a clearly defined path like the others do and nobody has any idea what to do with her. This is all perfectly sensible material for a family picture, presented in a heartfelt way that’s accessible to all ages without ever condescending to the audience. Nicely done.
Early and often, Mirabel asks what value she has to the family and to the village if she doesn’t have her power. As it turns out, she has quite a lot of value, and in pleasantly unexpected ways.
To start with, the whole village has gotten a little too comfortable with the status quo. It’s gotten to the point where everyone is taking the magic for granted, and there is no contingency plan for anything that goes wrong. Additionally, there’s the fact that Bruno up and left, and everyone in the family seems a little too okay with flat-out disowning one of their own for reasons beyond his control.
As a daughter who’s still technically on good terms with the family despite her lesser status, Mirabel is uniquely suited to mend bridges and bring Bruno back into the fold. Incidentally, this whole story arc is so beautifully developed, so inextricably linked to the themes of the film, it does a lot to make Bruno’s prescient visions feel earned and not just a flimsy all-purpose deus ex machina. More importantly, Mirabel’s outsider status makes her the unwitting keystone of the clan. She’s a forceful reminder that this family can’t be held together by magic alone.
In short, there’s nobody else (not even Alma, not that she’d ever admit it) with the power to bring together and/or fracture the family like Mirabel can.
Moreover, it bears repeating that Casita and its protective magic are the foundation of the entire village. Everyone depends on the Madrigal family and their powers to help everyone and keep everything running. In particular, poor Luisa is all but literally carrying the entire town on her shoulders. Thus the Madrigal family is under constant unyielding pressure to keep up the illusion that they’re all perfect and everything is going fine.
Mirabel, on the other hand, isn’t held to those same standards. She’s the only one who can directly acknowledge and address the uncomfortable truths that nobody else in the village — much less her family — can see. And again, she’s the only one who can chase after Bruno because she doesn’t have much in the way of credibility to lose. While she doesn’t have powers like the rest of her family and her skill set is therefore less versatile, she’s the only one who isn’t rendered completely helpless when the magic starts to fail and everyone’s powers go on the fritz.
The rules don’t apply to Mirabel. Alas, the film doesn’t go nearly far enough with that.
The film came so close — so frustratingly close! — to openly acknowledging that nobody has the first clue as to how any of this magic actually works. They don’t know where the candle came from, they don’t know what’s fueling all this magic, and they don’t know why it’s starting to fail now. They’ve spent the past few generations taking and taking and taking, and nobody seems to know what (if anything) is being given in return. This family, this house, this entire village is predicated on a system of magic that everyone takes for granted and nobody understands.
The one and only thing we know for a certainty is that whatever the rules are, they don’t apply to Mirabel. That seems like a pretty huge fucking point to go completely unexplored by the film.
For that matter, nobody ever thinks to bring up the tiny little detail that Alma doesn’t have powers either! The matriarch of the family is doing perfectly well for herself, holding together the house and the family and the whole damn village all by herself, and she never needed a gift of her own to do it. There is no conceivable reason why Mirabel couldn’t be groomed to inherit that position and play the same role someday. But no, Alma insists on talking down to Mirabel, holding her to the same standards as all their powered brethren. It’s unfair, it’s hypocritical, it’s short-sighted, it’s all-around stupid, and nobody EVER calls Alma out on that. Simply bringing it up might’ve been such a blindingly obvious solution to so many problems throughout the film.
That said, the whole third act suffers because everything gets resolved a little too easily and predictably. Yes, it’s heartwarming to see Mirabel find her vindication. Yes, there’s a sweet little lesson in there about giving and accepting help, rather than letting any one person (or handful of people) take on the world all alone. The execution itself is suitably tearjerking, but it’s not enough to hide the simple fact that the climax glides on rails and not much out of the ordinary happens after that big turning point into the third act.
Which brings me to another massive problem. I’m having a hard time putting it without spoilers, so I’ll spoil a couple of slightly older movies instead.
You know in Moana, when Maui’s magic fishing hook gets broken? He had to go through the entire third act with a faulty fishing hook. Until the very end of the film, when Maui is given a brand new magical fishing hook, dropped into his lap from out of nowhere. That may well be the most brazen and quintessentially textbook definition of “deus ex machina” I’ve ever witnessed. And there’s absolutely no reason for it… except that the fishing hook is such an iconic part of the character’s design and Disney would’ve wanted to keep it intact for brand synergy in the event of a sequel or some other merchandisable tie-in.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Maui could’ve kept on pushing himself, finding new workarounds. He could’ve grown into a stronger and more developed character in the sequel. He could’ve found or built a new magic doohickey to sell as part of a whole new round of merchandise exclusive to the sequel. But no, the corporate overlords at Disney just had to go and reverse what might otherwise have been the most impactful development of that character’s entire arc in the film, all for the sake of brand consistency.
By contrast, look at Inside Out over at Pixar. The filmmakers did not necessarily have to let Bing Bong stay dead. There is absolutely no reason why the filmmakers couldn’t have found some way around their own made-up rules to deliver Bing Bong back from oblivion. Indeed, the notion of keeping such a beloved character active and marketable for any future installments would’ve been a tempting motivation to do so. But no, the filmmakers were obviously smart enough to realize that resurrecting Bing Bong would’ve nullified his big heroic sacrifice and gutted one of the most potent emotional beats in the whole movie.
Put as simply and spoiler-free as I possibly can, what we’ve got here is a Moana situation. With the third act, the filmmakers had a golden opportunity to put the characters in a markedly different situation than where they were at the start of the film. They could’ve taken any future installments in any number of possible directions, but they chickened out. They didn’t just reverse the film’s biggest emotional moment, they might as well have erased that moment like it never happened! The filmmakers didn’t have the courage to commit to their single boldest move, and that cost them a lot of respect from me.
Speaking of which, I’m woefully underwhelmed with the work that Lin-Manuel Miranda turned in here. There’s practically none of the ingenious rhyming, relentless flow, or intricate bilingual wordplay that I’ve come to associate with even the least of Miranda’s musical creations. I can’t believe that freaking Vivo had more charm and effort put into thirty seconds of any given song than Encanto had in its entire soundtrack! Yes, I’m sure it makes a difference that Miranda wasn’t on the cast to provide his boundless charisma and voice talent. Then again, he wasn’t on the voice cast for Moana and he didn’t perform for some of the songs in Vivo, and those all worked out fine.
To be clear, it’s not that the songs are necessarily bad. They get the job done and they jerk the tears when necessary. They’re easily on par with most songs from the Frozen franchise (specifically, the ones that weren’t sung by Idina Menzel). But for Lin-Manuel Miranda composing songs on a Hispanic/Latinx-inspired movie, that’s not good enough. By all rights, this should’ve been some next-level shit at least on par with Vivo.
Of course not everyone gets a song, just as not every character gets their due. That was unavoidable for a cast of this size. (Especially for a 100-minute movie, which is pushing the typical limit for an animated kids’ flick.) The lion’s share of character development goes to Mirabel, with special prominence given to her relationships with Alma, Bruno, Luisa, and Isabela. These characters are all delightful and their relationships are nicely fleshed out. Mirabel’s parents don’t get very much in the way of screentime, but they make the most of every second. Dolores is perfectly charming, and her superhuman hearing makes her a useful plot device.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Isabela/Dolores love triangle with village boy Mariano (Maluma), the handsome and influential void of personality. It doesn’t add much to the plot, but it gives Dolores some hint of a personality while playing into Isabela’s strained perfectionism and the overall theme of unfair family pressures. Plus, the subplot doesn’t take up enough time to overstay its welcome. I’ll take it.
But then we have Antonio, who’s only important to the plot right up until he gets his power and no further. After that point, he’s little more than a sight gag. Likewise, Pepa is only really effective as a sight gag, and the use of a middle-aged woman’s volatile mood swings for a sight gag comes off as just a little bit sexist.
(Side note: Yes, Alan Tudyk gets his customary voice role. This time, he’s playing one of Antonio’s toucan friends.)
That being said, it’s a huge point of the premise that everyone in the Madrigal family has an extraordinary gift to help the village thrive. For all my problems with Pepa and Antonio, it’s easy to see how their abilities would be exceedingly useful. Compare that to Camilo, a shapeshifter who can only transform into other people who are within his line of sight. How in the nine hells is that supposed to be just as helpful as the woman with super-strength or the boy who can talk with animals? This character isn’t just a sight gag, he’s a sight gag who actively undermines the very premise of the film!
On a final miscellaneous note, I suppose I should mention Far from the Tree, the animated short film preceding the feature presentation. It’s a cute little picture about parenting and the passage of generations. More than anything, I’m pleased and amazed to see Disney produce such a polished work of 2D animation in 2021.
I believe Encanto could best be summed up as “safe”. This has all the earmarks of a hugely ambitious and creative film that got aggressively hamstrung by cowards. The film teases at all these details that could make the world so much bigger and deeper, but they shy away from any explanation. The music is just okay, never going as big or as hard as we know Lin-Manuel Miranda to be capable of. The plot is uninspired, either refusing to take any huge leaps or actively reversing any huge leaps that get taken.
It’s certainly not a bad film by any stretch. The leading characters are solid, the themes are heartfelt, and the animation is gleaming with polish. Yet the bright spots only call attention to all the blind spots. More than anything else, I’m frustrated with how much better this movie should’ve been.