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Encanto review – lively Disney animation can’t escape a muddled story

The House of Mouse's 60th animated feature is gorgeous to look at, but it's let down by a confusing narrative and forgettable songs

Disney continues its never-ending whistle-stop tour around the world with their 60th animated feature, the likeable but all too messy Encanto. Just as their last venture, Raya and the Last Dragon, took inspiration from Southeast Asia, Encanto uses the culture of Colombia as its table setting, and it's as colourful and beautifully animated as you’d expect. But there’s also something samey and forgettable about the whole affair, hinged as it is on a muddled story that feels like it’s being made up on the fly.

Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard, who helmed the great Zootropolis in 2016, Encanto takes place in a magical version of Columbia where plucky Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) lives as the only member of a sprawling, inter-generational family who doesn't possess a special gift. Years ago, her grandmother (María Cecilia Botero) was blessed with a “Miracle” that subsequently bestows every new member of the clan with a unique superpower when they come of age – super strength, super hearing, the ability to talk to animals…

Things begin to unravel, however, when Mirabel has a strange vision of their perfect household falling into ruin, though nobody quite believes she's telling the truth. It's then left to the powerless Mirabel, who takes her position as the “freak” of the family with surprising good grace, to discover the truth about the “Miracle.” And there's a good idea in here somewhere about the nature of “specialness,” though the film – shooting out story beats it can't keep up with – never channels it into an identifiable message or satisfying conclusion.

Indeed, Disney’s biggest problem in recent years has been in the story department (this one’s credited to a whopping six writers). Raya leaned on an uninventive fetch quest; Frozen 2 was a messy hodgepodge of undeveloped ideas. Here, the issue lies in the momentum – the single house setting, which grounds the action to essentially one location, doesn’t help with pacing, while at points it's unclear what Mirabel's goal is supposed to be.

There are upsides. The voice cast (including Carolina Gaitán, Diane Guerrero, and John Leguizamo) is uniformly excellent, and the visuals – popping with bright colours, intimate details, and inventive “camerawork” – means there's always something interesting to look at, even as the story becomes too shapeless to process. Encanto's sentient house, “Casita,” who operates with the same shades of charm as Aladdin’s Magic Carpet, also provides a consistently entertaining element, cementing itself as the film’s most memorable character.

But under the guise of progress – the South American setting; a non-white, female protagonist – there is a clamouring sense of the familiar. While Encanto’s magical realist Columbia can certainly be admired, the film doesn't really teach us anything about the culture it’s pulling from, imbuing it with an edge of inauthenticity. Is this too much to ask of what is essentially a kids’ film? Perhaps – but when other studios seem to be making more complex choices, why not the studio who raised the bar to begin with?

Well, arguably the biggest draw to a film like this are the songs, and Disney have brought in the absurdly prolific Lin-Manuel Miranda for the second (and certainly not last) time to work on the soundtrack. Miranda proved a perfect match for Disney when he delivered the brilliant, memorable ballad “How Far I’ll Go” for 2016’s Moana, but there's a feeling that maybe he's stretching himself too thin by taking on so many projects; the songs here, inspired by Latin sounds and interspersed with his trademark rapping, are serviceable enough, but too scatterbrained to linger in the memory (his compositions for a lesser animated 2021 film, Vivo, showed more flair and imagination).

It feels odd to dunk on a movie whose heart is clearly in the right place, and Encanto is certainly difficult to outright dislike. But a Disney movie used to inspire more than a passing feeling of having merely watched it: characters and stories with timeless appeal, whose clever, witty and propulsive narratives offered endless replay value and a special kind of magic. For a movie that’s literally bursting with magic, Encanto passes the time well enough, but it doesn’t quite leave you with a feeling of having been put under a spell. “Fine” seems to be the Disney hallmark these days – and Encanto continues the trend.

Encanto is now showing in UK cinemas.

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