Encanto (2021)

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

Encanto

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.

Hamilton (2020)

2020 #157
Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hamilton on Disney+

Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

Aaron Burr, sir

Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

Looking for a film at work, work

The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

Not throwing away their shot

You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

5 out of 5

Hamilton is available on Disney+ now. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

Moana (2016)

2017 #85
Ron Clements & John Musker | 103 mins | TV (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Moana

The latest entry in Disney’s animated canon (the 56th), Moana is another princess-starring musical — that genre fully back in vogue for animated movies since the success of Frozen, I guess. The twist (if you can call it that, because the film thankfully doesn’t belabour the point) is that this isn’t another European-style princess fairytale, but rather one inspired by Polynesian culture, with songs co-written by That Guy From Hamilton.

Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a chief whose tribe never venture far from their island’s waters, despite the sea calling to Moana — literally, as it turns out, because when the island’s crops begin to wither, the sea chooses Moana to undertake a quest to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore a MacGuffin and make everything a-okay again. Along the way, there are moral lessons about being adventurous and stuff.

Although the cultural setting is notably different to Disney’s usual stomping ground — and, don’t get me wrong, that diversity is something to be applauded, both for putting different kinds of heroes on screen and for giving us all something fresh — Moana is executed with Disney’s customary slickness. It looks fantastic, especially in 3D, where the ocean stretches forever into the screen, and there’s a musical sequence with 2D backgrounds that, ironically, is one of the best extra-dimensional bits because of what it does with said backgrounds. The songs are a toe-tapping treat too, with Moana’s big number, How Far I’ll Go, a more likeable earworm than certain other Disney songs about going; a David Bowie-inspired villain’s song, Shiny; and, my personal favourite, a comedy number sung by the Rock called You’re Welcome (this being the one with the 2D-that-looks-fab-in-3D animation).

Maui and Moana

Surprisingly for a Disney princess film, there’s a superb action sequence in the middle, a rope-swinging sea battle against… miniature… pirate… coconut… things… er, I guess…? Anyway, it may actually be one of my favourite action scenes of the year, which is not what you generally find in a Disney musical. The big action scene at the end is perhaps slightly less effective as it strives hard to be an epic climax, but I think that’s nitpicking — it’s conceptually strong, with another positive underlying message. A bigger problem is the character of the sea: it chooses Moana for the quest, which arguably takes away some of her agency (the film fights to seem like it’s giving it back to her), and regularly turns up as a mini deus ex machina every time the characters need a hand.

That said, while I can observe those issues from an objective and critically-minded point of view, they didn’t actually bother me all that much. If you just (ahem) let it go, Moana is a ceaselessly likeable, consistently entertaining musical adventure. Along with Frozen and Zootropolis, it suggests Disney have hit a real stride right now that hopefully they can continue to build on.

4 out of 5

Moana is available on Sky Cinema from today.

It placed 16th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.