Encanto (2021)

Jared Bush & Byron Howard | 102 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | PG / PG


The 60th film in Disney’s animated canon was, despite that status, sent straight to streaming in the midst of the pandemic. Possibly because of that, it seemed to catch on quite quickly as their latest major success. Case in point: one of the songs — We Don’t Talk About Bruno — ended up having greater chart success than Frozen’s notorious Let It Go.

(I’ve got to take the time to say that I find this quite baffling. I don’t love Let It Go (I’m a 36-year-old man, not a six-year-old girl in 2013), but it’s clearly a catchy tune with lyrics that transcend its place in the film — you can understand how it became such a huge hit. But for the life of me I can’t work out why We Don’t Talk About Bruno has surpassed its success. It’s a likeable song that plays well in the movie — and I think hearing it in place is important, because the first time I heard it was on the radio and I couldn’t even work out what they were singing about. So, there’s nothing going on lyrically that makes it applicable in any other context, and I don’t think the underlying tune is so earwormy as to warrant play merely for that reason. Or maybe it is if you’re the right age, because clearly something made it a massive hit.)

Anyway, the film itself is about a family, the Madrigals, who live in a magical house in an isolated part of Colombia and all have magical powers — except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), for reasons no one understands. But when the family begin to lose their abilities, finding out what’s going on and fixing it falls to Mirabel. Because of course it does.

Someone's gotta do the donkey work

Encanto doesn’t look like your typical Disney Princess movie, but it’s not functionally different to them. The Madrigal family’s powers mean they effectively rule over their small town, albeit in a benevolent way, which makes Mirabel a de facto Princess; and she has the usual Disney Princess hangups about feeling under-appreciated and needing to find her self-worth. But hey, at least she doesn’t also need to find a husband! Nonetheless, it’s welcome that the film is less traditional is its setting — present-day South America, rather than the typical fairytale land of historical Europe — and the pace is also up-to-date. In fact, it’s quite frantic. Like, okay, calm down a bit; take your time occasionally; let stuff stay on screen long enough for us to appreciate how good it looks. And the animation does look great, with detailed designs, fluid movement and dynamic camerawork, and an incredibly colourful palette, especially when fired up by HDR/WCG.

The songs are by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, unmistakably so. It’s something about the phrasing, the rhythm, the rhyme patterns… I’m no musicologist so I can’t adequately explain it, but they’re distinctively his work. But that’s what you want when you hire someone, right — their own voice. If you don’t like this style from his other work, chances are the music here won’t appeal to you either. If you do like it, there’s much to enjoy, from the opening number, The Family Madrigal, which introduces us to the large cast of characters at whipcrack pace, to my personal favourite, Surface Pressure, about one family member’s struggle with all the weight on her shoulders. And yet they put Dos Oruguitas up for the Original Song Oscar, apparently trying to emulate the success of Coco’s Remember Me. Oops. (Obviously they should’ve gone with breakout hit Bruno, but I reckon either of the other songs I’ve mentioned would’ve stood a better chance.)

One of Encanto’s directors is Byron Howard, whose previous work for Disney has encompassed Bolt, Tangled, and Zootropolis — three films I’d class as among the very best of Disney’s current purple patch. It’s a helluva record. Happily, Encanto continues it. I might rank it a little behind the other three when all is totted up, but being next in line to such strong movies is nothing to be ashamed of.

4 out of 5

Encanto is the 28th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

Zootropolis (2016)

aka Zootopia

2016 #116
Byron Howard & Rich Moore | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

ZootropolisDisney’s 55th Animated Classic is their second highest-grossing ever, the 25th film to take over $1 billion at the worldwide box office, which makes it a hit of Frozen-sized proportions (at least financially — parents must be glad there’s no Let It Go-esque earworm involved). That said, I’d perhaps argue it’s a Disney movie aimed as much (perhaps even more) at the studio’s adult fans as its child ones. But I’ll come to that in a bit.

Set in a world of anthropomorphised animals, Zootropolis introduces us to Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a small-town bunny who joins the police force in the titular big city,* the first rabbit to do so. Despite there being a spate of mysterious disappearances across the city, Judy gets lumped with traffic duty, where she soon encounters small-time con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). That association comes in handy when she manages to get assigned one of the missing person animal cases and notices that Nick may have been a witness to the abduction. Soon, the mismatched pair begin to uncover an aggressive conspiracy…

Disney animations may be best known as musicals based on fairytales, but they certainly don’t make up 100% of their Classics line, especially in recent years. I think Zootropolis may be the first time they’ve attempted a neo-noir crime thriller, though. And I bet no one ever thought they’d see a Disney film with a sequence set at a nudist resort. Or in a drugs lab, for that matter. Or one with a substantial parody of The Godfather and clear references to Breaking Bad. And you thought Inside Out was clever for having one line from Chinatown

Once you factor in the many references to discussions that currently dominate social discourse — there are abundant riffs on the language of real-life concerns about race, gender, and sexuality — you begin to see how Zootropolis could be seen as a Disney film that’s primarily aimed at adults. Those concerns ultimately become thematic points so large that they cross the line from being subtextual “one for the adults” asides into being textual “vital to the plot” tenets of the film. So given the genre trappings, nudist resorts, drugs labs, parodies of 18-rated media, and very grown-up thematic points, you do have to wonder if Zootropolis functions better for adults who like Disney films than it does for kids who like Disney films. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s only one to an extent, because the kind of adult this notion supposes the film is aimed at is… well, me.

However, that’s not to say kids can’t get enjoyment out of it: there are plenty of colourful characters and locations, relatable situations, cross generational humour, and a moral lesson young’uns will understand. There’s the DMV sequence, for instance, which is grounded in an adult experience but so funny it must cross over. Considering all the praise I’ve heard for that one scene, it’s also a feat it lives up to the hype. It’s gorgeously animated throughout, bolstered by a world that has been magnificently realised, with all the different themed districts of the city. (After all the Disney movies that have had contrived TV series spin-offs, this is a film that actually feels like it deserves one. The setup is obvious — a police procedural — and the world the film suggests is big enough to warrant it. Heck, it practically demands it — there’s so much more of this world, you want to see it explored.) Michael Giacchino’s score is different too: memorable and fun, in part thanks to using a cornucopia of unusual instruments to provide a ‘world music’ sound that’s in-keeping with the movie.

If I had any problem it’d be that the story takes a little while to warm up, really coming alive (at least for me) once it gets stuck into the main investigation. That’s not to say the first act is without its merits (there are both amusing and awe-inspiring sequences there, plus some moments that are nicely paid off later), but the film’s need/desire to establish the familiar “you can be whatever you dream if you just try” moral message makes it take a little longer than might be ideal. Adults will probably guess whodunnit well before the reveal, too, but that doesn’t mean the journey getting there is any less fun.

There’s a quote on the cover of Zootropolis’ US Blu-ray that calls it the best Disney movie in 20 years. As much as I liked Bolt and Tangled,** and Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, and, yes, even Frozen, I think Zootropolis is at the very least a contender for that crown.

4 out of 5

Zootropolis is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

* I watched a US copy of the film, so I have a question for anyone who watched it in the UK: we all know they changed the title from Zootopia to Zootropolis, but did they actually change the name of the city in the film too? That’s a lot of redubbing if they did… ^

** Both co-directed by Zootropolis’ Byron Howard. Developing a pretty good track record, that man. ^

Tangled (2010)

2011 #69
Nathan Greno & Byron Howard | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

TangledDisney’s 50th animated feature is Rapunzel in all but name, for no particularly good reason. It seemed to be met with universal praise on its release last year, critics hailing it as a return to Disney’s previous quality after a run of lacklustre releases, in particular the underwhelming return to 2D in the year before’s The Princess and the Frog.

Well, to get that comparison immediately out of the way, Tangled isn’t as good as The Princess and the Frog in my estimation. I’m not sure why it seems to have been more widely praised — it’s solid and good fun, but I thought Frog had more going for it.

Which isn’t to say Tangled is bad. It’s funny, which is its biggest asset, and exciting at times — as usual, the highly moveable camera of CG animation adds fluidity, speed and excitement to the action sequences, making them one of the high points.

It’s not all good and shiny though. The setting — a comedic-ish fantasy-kingdom world — can come across a bit like lightweight Shrek, lacking the anachronistic postmodern real-world references that made that film zing. Worse, the songs are distinctly unmemorable — I’d forgotten some of them by the time it came to their own reprise. A gang of thugs singing about their dreams is the best thanks to its comedy, but I couldn’t hum or sing any of it for you now. I especially lament the lack of a decent villain’s song, Why not just call it Rapunzel?a number I usually particularly enjoy. It has one, I suppose, but it’s one of the weakest examples I’ve ever heard.

Tangled isn’t bad by any measure, but I don’t feel it should be the praise-magnet it became. There are certainly better Disney musicals — it can’t hold a candle to those; and there are better funny fairytales too — but at least it holds up as a solid addition to that sub-genre.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Tangled is on Disney Cinemagic this Sunday, 23rd October, at 5pm and 9pm.

Bolt (2008)

2011 #11
Byron Howard & Chris Williams | 96 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

BoltBolt is the 48th film in Disney’s animated canon (whatever the official name for that is these days), from their CG-only era that filled most of the ’00s. It’s a period already remembered as When Disney Lost Its Way, after the second (or is it third? I forget) ‘golden era’ of the early ’90s; the time that produced flops like Treasure Planet, Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons. Things are looking up — it’s been followed by The Princess and the Frog, where a return to 2D animation distinctly marked a more widespread change of direction, and the praised Tangled — but it may be Bolt that comes to be seen as the true turning point, because it’s actually rather good.

Let’s get the worst bit out of the way first: thankfully, Miley Cyrus’ part is quite small. She’s adequate, but one suspects she got roped in because a) Disney were already trying to find a way to continue making money out of her post-Hannah Montana, and b) she provided a surefire-selling song for the end credits. Chloë Moretz reportedly recorded all of Penny’s dialogue before Cyrus was brought in; one can’t help but feel that, age-wise (and probably acting-ability-wise too), she would’ve been a better fit for the character.

But it’s not about Penny, it’s about Bolt, and he is excellently realised. Bolt, if you don’t know, is a dog, and the animators have captured dogs’ behaviour perfectly. It’s not just the obvious things, as seen during the sequence where Mittens the cat trains him to be a ‘regular dog’, but all the little mannerisms throughout. The animals are anthropomorphised, of course, but they’re not just animal-shaped-humans; they’re what these animals would be like if they could talk. Crossed with humans, anyway.

Penny and Bolt in actionAlso noteworthy are the action sequences. Far from being perfunctory attempts at liveliness, these are properly exciting, making full use of 3D CGI to create exciting and dynamic sequences. I’m not just talking about the couple we get from the TV-series-within-the-film either, but also the ‘real world’ ones as Bolt, Mittens and Rhino jump onto trains, out of moving vans, escape from a pound, etc. Of course, the TV-series-within-the-film is completely implausible — like you could film a TV show with massive action sequences in such a way that you only ever do a single take, never mind achieve all those effects on a TV budget. But then this is a film where a talking dog, cat and hamster work together to travel from New York to Hollywood entirely of their own volition — I think it’s safe to say no one’s aiming for documentary levels of realism.

And it’s funny too, especially once Rhino the hamster turns up. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made (and the level of praise attributed to Rhino in some quarters may have taken it too far), but it’s genial enough and elicited a few decent laughs. It even had me getting a little emotional at the end, which isn’t something I ever expected to feel about a film starring Miley Cyrus and a dog made out of polygons.

Bolt swings into action

Despite being computer-generated and 3D, there are attempts to add a painterly look to the film — brushstrokes, pastel colours, that kind of thing. It works rather well when seen in isolation in backgrounds, some of the big wide shots, etc; but the obviously-CG main elements jar against it, the painterly style not extending to the characters or main environments fully enough for it to gel. Especially when the apparently-flat paint-styled backgrounds begin to move in three dimensions (for instance, as the camera pushes into scenery, so that trees/buildings move relative to road/field/hills/streets), it becomes a little weird. An interesting experiment, but not a wholly successful one I think. Something like Ratatouille’s attempt at softening CG animation’s usual hard crispness was more effective.

Bolt and RhinoIt would be easy to dismiss Bolt as part of Disney’s CG folly, especially as it stars Miley Cyrus and is immediately followed by their return to 2D animation, but I think that would be a mistake. It’s a fast-paced and fun adventure, with accurately-captured animals meaning it’s especially likely to appeal to dog lovers. Disney’s next golden era just might begin here.

4 out of 5