Monday 17 January 2022

Sanctuary: "Encanto"

Disney's Christmas 2021 release
Encanto - the company's 60th animated feature - feels every bit as much a response to the turbulence of the Trump years as was Steven Spielberg's West Side Story. It opens on a party of Colombian migrants crossing a river in the dead of night in search of sanctuary; the only real difference between these supremely photorealistic digimated images and those on the CNN nightly news is that these huddled masses carry magic candles that light their path and reveal the gifts of their bearers. Here is latter-day American displacement with the edge taken off it, nightmare fed through a computer and rejigged as fairytale. Heroine Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) - a squiggle of unruly teenage curls atop a big, open heart, as inchoate as the bulk of the film's likely audience - will herself go seeking a place in the world, a quest made more urgent by the fact she's the only member of the extended Madrigal clan not to have inherited magic powers. Around her, you sense these animators synthesising tried-and-tested elements from the company's 59 previous animated features, as well as recent developments in the field of superhero movies. The Madrigals reside in a Brigadoon-like valley not dissimilar in its lavish pixellation to the Wakanda of Black Panther, and within a house that's every bit as enchanted as the Beast's manor in Beauty and the Beast. (Those walking alarm clocks look mucho familiar.) I've long been critical of Disney's cultural hegemony, but Encanto has been conceived with what strikes me as a legitimate goal for any dream factory to have: to reassure that percentage of the population who've spent the past few years feeling especially unsettled that there is a safe space for them - even if it's just inside a cinema, even if it's only for 100 minutes - and that you don't have to have a special talent to feel welcome, valuable, loved. Anyone inclined to question the sincerity of that message, or to wonder whether it doesn't also come with a hefty side order of condescension is invited to sit back and experience the very great warmth coming off the screen.

That would be the danger here - a kind of hollow wokeness, where the film's evident good intentions weren't fully backed up by the storytelling, or where that storytelling gets compromised by the rush to convert this material into a $250-a-ticket Broadway musical (as I still maintain was the case with Frozen). But no, this world has been built up with appreciable detail and colour, and a thousand casually tiny flourishes of animation that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago: I liked the flexing floorboards that kick up Mirabel's slippers so her feet can ease into them on the go. La Casa Madrigal - a vibrant, sprawling, multilayered pile with pockets of mystery, rearranging itself on a second-by-second basis - is the Ghibliesque centrepoint, for good reason: it's an inspired analogue for an ideal of America, a big ol' funhouse that not only provides shelter but adapts at every turn to the needs of its residents. Yet those wobbly floorboards equally seem to speak to the insecurities of those residents: in a film not short on images of collapsibility, the ground keeps literally opening up beneath their feet. The overly busy plot - born of at least one or two script conferences too many - is a no less ramshackle construction, amalgamating several telenovelas' worth of characters and narrative developments. Yet there's something quietly subversive about centring a heroine whose gift proves to be for patching things back together rather than smashing shit up, and about a superhero animation where the critical last-reel coming together isn't a fight but a hug, the beginnings of a long-overdue rebuilding operation. Your musical bonus: songs in which Lin-Manuel Miranda continues his project to squeeze in more syllables per minute than any lyricist before him, and to thereby make the big, inspirational This Is Me anthems animations now trade in whipsmart and funny instead of dreary or drippy. After Moana and this, Disney should sack their other hacks - let them go! - and stick Miranda on a retainer.

Encanto is now showing in cinemas nationwide, and available to stream via Disney+; it will also be available on DVD from February 7.

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