Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Encanto (and "Far from the Tree")

I don't normally take a movie in on Thanksgiving evening, but it was a pretty weird day, which i started by heading to South Station to catch a bus to Portland and my family in the suburbs, and, folks, this was the bus terminal at 9:30am on Thanksgiving morning:
I have been in that place at that hour before, and that level of nobody there is downright eerie. Folks offered the possible explanation that maybe people working from home were more likely to travel the night before or the like, but as a person who works from home, I'm not sure I buy that. Folks (who aren't me, apparently) just really still aren't traveling It had a knock-on effect on the rest of the day; after dinner at my mom's with one brother, we didn't opt to head out to see another brother at his in-laws or onto our fathers, where dinner would be late enough that I'd likely miss the last bus of the day back to Boston. So I got on the one before it, hit town a little before 8pm, and thus had jsut enough time to slip into the theater for this.

As I say in the review, I like it quiet a bit, even if it's got long chunks early on where it doesn't quite seem like the filmmakers have decided what it's going to be. It's not a bad trick to pull a number of things together without really feeling like they've all been driving to the same place. I'm really looking forward to hearing what my nieces think of this one, since it's obviously more for them than me.

It could also potentially go on the "watch an unusual number of times in theaters because the 3D in particular is amazing" list with Hugo - I think I hit that three times while it as in theaters and happily scooped up a disc when I had a machine that could play them - although it probably won't, as I'm out of town for the next week and my brain will probably think it's midnight when I figure I may as well hit a theater on vacation becaue what else am I don't after dark and 3D releases don't last much more than a week or two any more. I'll probably still see it again, though, just because I wasn't exactly on its wavelength to start. I'm kind of wondering if I'll enjoy it more start ro finish on a second go.

"Far from the Tree"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

As with many animated shorts that Disney plays before their features, "Far from the Tree" is an enjoyable little work where you can feel the animators looking to stretch their artistic muscles as much as tell a joke or tug on some heartstrings. Here, that means trying out a style that aims to feel hand-drawn but which is also aggressively three-dimensional (for those that see it that way. That's no small feat technically or in terms of composition, I suspect, and the group does it admirably.

As an animated short in the world where this style is common or at least established, it's pretty cute - the fishers hunting for oysters, clams, and such are creatures one doesn't see very often, with the animators doing well to capture how this sort of animal is kind of sleekly furry without a whole lot of trying to render individual hairs, with the adult giving off the vibe that you'd feel some muscle under the coat if you tried to pet it (thought it would probably bite your hand) while its kid gives off adorable baby-animal vibes while nevertheless clearly being the same species They're canny about how they use the environment and hunting grounds, too - even before one sees a wolf, theres a sense of this sharp divide between the woods where they live and the wide-open beach where they hunt, and a sense of the safety (such as it is) that a few spots on the border offer.

The story the filmmakers tell is well-trod but fine despite that, Most folks watching will have a fair idea of the next beat at least a few seconds before it comes, and it's got a jump forward at a spot where it could maybe use a moment or two to play out why it's going to be about breaking or continuing a cycle. It works well enough, especially if playing with style and tech is the main goal, but isn't really built to grab someone and make them take that stuff for granted.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

It's been some time since Disney's last traditionally-animated feature, and while Encanto wouldn't necessarily be better that way - the filmmakers would have made a lot of different choices - there's a looseness to the film that occasionally feels at odds with CGI precision. It feels like the result of doodling, riffing, and batting ideas across a room, and as a result the ways in which it shines can almost sneak up on a viewer: All these bits of story that don't quite fit together wind up forming a pattern that may just get to its viewers more than they expected.

It opens with Mirabel Madrigal (voice of Stephanie Beatriz) telling the story of her family, refugees who settled in a secluded valley led by her abuela Alma (voice of Maria Cecilia Botero), whose late husband left her a magical candle that not only caused their house to grow to accommodate her triplets and come to life, but also blessed them and the family's next generation with extraordinary abilities for the benefit of their community when they came of age - Mirabel's mother's cooking heals, her cousin can hear every noise in the valley, sisters Luisa (voice of Jessica Darrow) and Isabela (voice of Diane Guerrero) have incredible strength and the ability to grow flowers, and pre-teen Antonio (voice of Ravi Cabot-Coyers) has just discovered he can talk to animals. Mirabel, on the other hand, did not receive that sort of blessing, but she is nevertheless the one who seems most keenly aware that the family's magic appears to be fading.

There are a couple of ways that the filmmakers could go with this. It's possible that Mirabel has simply not discovered her power (which will almost certainly be useful in this particular situation) yet, either because she's a late bloomer or it's not obvious, or she may genuinely be ordinary on that count. It's a tricky if mostly-successful balancing act before the filmmakers opt to commit to a specific direction, especially as she's given most of the earlier songs and it seems possible that she's got something tied to creativity or the arts. There's not much going on to suggest the story's going to head in that direction, though, and much of what does go on implies a theme of how it's more important to be good than gifted. Even when they do pick a lane, there are enough characters, subplots, and circling around the main story to potentially frustrate. There are moments when it threatens to become a sort of anti-Princess movie where kids learn that concentrating a bunch of inherited power and wealth in one family is always going to cause problems, no matter how well-intentioned they are, but that theme might be a little heady for kids, so it's probably for the best that the film eventually settles on familial expectations and sibling rivalry.

Even if there are fault lines, though, it's a nice group to hang around with. Stephanie Beatriz and the film's animators have a tricky task in terms of putting Mirabel at the center of the story despite the fact that she really cannot be bigger than the family members whose most significant personality traits bleed out past their bodies, but there's energy to Beatriz's delivery and sweep to her movements that makes her vibrant and able to draw people in. It's an obvious contrast to how, between Maria Cecilia Botero's stern delivery and how Abuela Alma is so visually solid (with little unnecessary movement), it's easy to forget she doesn't have powers herself. There's nifty work in how Antonio goes from terribly nervous about his impending ceremony to excited about his gift, as well as how they plant an image and then back it up a bit when introducing the missing Uncle Bruno, with both the animation and John Leguizamo's voice work favoring nervous restraint over twitchy eccentricity.

On top of solid character animation, the film is just generally gorgeous, full of color and whimsical design. The animators fill the screen with fun detail but generally stop short of doing too much and overpowering the audience. Even during the more adventuresome sequences the animators seem to be having fun cartooning, and those adventurous moments pop a little bit extra if one gets a chance to see it in 3D; the stereo crew does impressive work with the house's busy and sometimes impossible structures. I also suspect that the company's software developers made a major leap in rendering fabric at some point during this film's production, because costumes like Mirabel's loose dresses move in ways they seldom have before.

The songs are sometimes a bit of an odd bunch; Lin-Manuel Miranda handles that end of the film and they're not quite so traditional as what he did for Moana, with the catch-enough melodies supporting chewy vocabulary words for the kids and raps that must have left some performers gasping for breath. That rapid-fire delivery makes for some terrific numbers, though, most notably Luisa's song where the visuals rush to keep up with what she's singing in a way that would do Robin Williams's Genie in Aladdin proud in its barrage of visual gags and shifting settings, something the songs in Disney's lighter cel-style features managed in a way that the CGI ones have seldom come close to equalling.

There are points early on when the sheer amount of different things the filmmakers are up to threaten to sink it - it's the sort of animated film where one can feel the three directors and three others with story credits - but it pulls together in impressive fashion, to the point where it could very well work better the second time around, On top of that, it feels like it's busy and wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that might immediately click with kids even if I needed some time to acclimate.

Also on eFilmCritic

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