Upon leaving my screening of Encanto, I was convinced that I had just seen my favorite animated Disney movie since 2016's Zootopia, the Oscar-winning comedy that, maybe not coincidentally, was also co-directed by the new film's Jared Bush and Byron Howard. But when I tried thinking back to the animated Disney musical that I most loved prior to Encanto, I drew a blank. Sure, Frozen has a handful of memorable numbers, and The Princess & the Frog features sprightly tunes, and I can't get through 10 seconds of Tangled's “I See the Light” without instinctively welling up. Honestly, though? I'd have to go with Disney's original version of The Lion King. You remember that one, right? The GGI-free Disney adventure that made its debut 27 years (a.k.a. half my life) ago?
It's not that Encanto's songs and score – Germaine Franco is their composer, the busy Lin-Manuel Miranda their lyricist – are necessarily all that memorable. There are no earworms here to rival “Let It Go” or “Colors of the Wind” or “Remember Me,” and a few hours after seeing the film, I couldn't recall a single melody or song title. Yet Franco's and Miranda's contributions are absolutely ideal in the moment, and better still, they both capture and enhance the spirit of the on-screen actions and moods: the manically happy introductions of “The Family Madrigal” (a number that owes a significant debt to Miranda's title track for In the Heights); the muscular humor and sneaky self-pity of “Surface Pressure”; the wistful heartbreak of “Dos Aruguitas.” (Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra performs that latter number entirely in Spanish, and also covers it in English during the end credits.) Encanto's tunes do precisely what expert musical numbers always should – they simultaneously reveal character and further the plot – and they bring an extra level of soul-lifting magic to a movie that would already have been plenty magical without them.
To reference the film's many characters is to risk making Encanto's storyline sound far more knotty than it actually is, and despite the exuberance of that “Family Madrigal” opener, viewers might still feel as though they initially need a flow chart just to keep up. Gradually, though, the pieces fall into place. The setting is an expansive, nearly ambulatory home in Colombia – her name is Casita – presided over by Alma Madrigal, a matriarch whose multitudinous clan members have been gifted wondrous abilities by an enchanted candle. (It's all very Beauty & the Beast. Just go with it.) Alma has three children: Julieta, who can heal people with her cooking; Pepa, who can control the weather; and Bruno, who can predict the future, and whose uncomfortable visions led to him deserting the family. (The Madrigals' feelings toward this black sheep are evident in the song titled “We Don't Talk About Bruno.”) Alma also has three granddaughters: Isabella, who can make flowers bloom anywhere, at any time; Luisa, who has superhuman strength; and Mirabel, our smart, spunky, eyeglasses-wearing protagonist who, like her grandmother, doesn't appear to possess any magical talents whatsoever.
Given that the Madrigal clan also boasts younger cousins who can shape-shift and communicate with animals (as well as in-laws who only married into superpowers), I presumed that Encanto would follow a relatively predictable Disney-musical arc: songs would be sung; a journey would be taken, likely with an adorable animal in tow; and our heroine would eventually learn that even though she didn't have the seemingly impossible abilities of her familia, it didn't matter, because she was Magical on the Inside. It turns out that's only kind of what happens. Songs are sung. There is an animal, or more precisely a toucan, but he's only somewhat adorable. Mirabel is indeed Magical on the Inside, but she already knows that at the start ... or is at least doing a competent job of pretending she does. Her journey, though, pretty much stops at Casita's front gates. Because after Mirabel witnesses the family domicile cracking and crumbling during a merry block party – a sight that no one else in the family sees, or believes that Mirabel has seen – the young woman doesn't leave home to seek answers to her mystery. Instead, she ventures further inside the house, and begins to uncover bigger mysteries, and more significant answers, regarding what's causing Casita, and by extension her family, to fall apart.
Super-heroics and ambulatory edifice and enchanted candle aside, Encanto's is an intensely sophisticated narrative, one that understands that it's people, not unexplainable events, that cause family foundations to crack. Yet screenwriters Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith (with the “story by” contributors including Miranda and co-director Byron Howard), aided in no small part by a sublime vocal cast led by Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel and a spectacularly funny John Leguizamo as Bruno, do a masterful job of making complicated relationships coherent and accessible to even young viewers. While it does take a while to establish who's who, we gradually become so familiar with the Madrigals' personalities and eccentricities that by the film's halfway point, a dinner sequence of family members alternately hiding and spilling secrets turns into a miniature master class in character-driven comedy – and at my screening, it wasn't just the adults who were laughing out loud. And because every one-on-one encounter, as in every family, is slightly different, just about every scene in Encanto feels distinct from the one that preceded it. The beautiful, hushed, beneath-the-bed chat between Mirabel and her cousin Antonio has a completely different tone from Mirabel's heated exchanges with Isabella and her tender conversations with her mother and her confused fascination with Bruno; Disney may as well be giving us 10 family comedies – or, more specifically, dramedies – for the price of one.
Beyond the picture's dandy musical numbers, the studio is also giving us everything we customarily revere an animated Disney feature for, at least when its artists are working at peak performance. Encanto looks positively stunning, with Casita a source of unending visual delight and the colors throughout so spectacularly vibrant that they make Finding Nemo look like Steamboat Willie. The giggles are copious, and if the scene of Bruno trying on different headpieces to hide his face isn't quite as well-timed as Zootopia's routine at the DMV, it's a close call. The storyline is continually involving and, on more than a few occasions, truly surprising. The morals are traditionally admirable, yet not shoved down our throats. And yes, I cried at least three times at this utterly marvelous achievement – though my one major quibble with the film is that it doesn't need the extra burst of supernatural wonderment provided by the finale, a flourish that has the unintended effect of cheapening the movie's true emotional payoff that lands just beforehand. But this is a quibble you want to have. Because while there have been plenty of good ones over the years, what was the last animated Disney outing you remember that gave its audiences too much in the way of magic?
You wouldn't think that Stephen Karam's The Humans would have a lot in common with the massively populated, kid-friendly, animated original Encanto, considering that the former title is live-action, R-rated, and adapted from a Broadway play, and that its six characters – total! – are roughly half the number of people introduced in Lin-Manuel Miranda's opening song. Yet the similarities, like Karam's film itself, are downright eerie. Like Encanto, The Humans (now streaming on Showtime) concerns a purportedly tight-knit family that gathers for a celebration – in this case, Thanksgiving dinner. The clan members all iterate their love for one another while masking long-held grudges and hiding shameful secrets. The dwelling in which the festivities take place is obviously falling apart at the seams, and appears to be its own living, breathing entity whose eminent collapse feels borne of the characters' collapsing emotional states. And just like Encanto, which I saw less than 36 hours before my viewing of Karam's adaptation, The Humans is one of my very favorite movies of the year.
In truth, the film suggests what you might get if the Disney offering mated with The Father, another Broadway transplant brilliantly written and directed by its playwright, and another that boasts a stronger, stranger visual sense than screen works based on non-musical stage pieces generally deliver. After an arresting opening-credits sequence in which constricted views of Manhattan skies begin to resemble the arms of a slow-moving clock, we enter the dilapidated, two-story apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), young lovers who have just moved in together and seem almost comically unaware of their new home's state of disrepair. For the next 90 minutes, with the exception of one establishing shot of the building's exterior, we never leave the place. And neither do Brigid, Richard, or their Thanksgiving/housewarming guests: Brigid's father Erik (Richard Jenkins), her mother Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her Tony-winning role), her older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), and her wheelchair-bound grandmother Momo (June Squibb) who's suffering from dementia. Plot-wise, that's about it: the family arrives for dinner, and leaves after dinner. Yet what we get in between is thunderously powerful – a shrewdly written, magnificently acted deep dive into shared family traditions and jokes, but also an on-screen holiday celebration augmented by guilt, resentment, disappointment, shame, health crises, scandalous behavior, and literal and figurative nightmares. Happy Thanksgiving!
To be sure, The Humans won't be everyone's particular side of holiday stuffing. Even if the intentionally suffocating atmosphere and cavernous, dimly lit hallways (when the light bulbs are functioning at all) don't bring you down, it's hard to tell if you're getting more depressed by Aimee's colitis diagnosis and recent breakup, or by Momo's addled ramblings that the family does its best to ignore, or by the sunken posture and sullen expression that could only belong to Richard Jenkins at his most downbeat. Yet for a grade-A bummer, I found Karam's film genuinely exhilarating.
By nature, I'm a sucker for filmed versions of stage dramas, and Karam's Broadway one-act (which won the 2016 Tony for Best Play) is an exceptional theatre piece: mordant, funny, painful, and devastatingly smart about family dynamics. It's evident, though, that Karam knows his material so well that he's thought out every moment in terms of what it should look and sound like as a movie; The Humans is the complete opposite of the point-the-camera-and-shoot approach of so many lackluster stage-to-screen transfers. The stage version employed a two-story set by which you could watch the upstairs and downstairs goings-on – and watch characters listen to others talk about them from a floor away – simultaneously, and focus on whomever you wanted to. Without employing split-screens, Karam creates similar effects here, with cinematographer Lol Crawley's camera passing through the floorboards and along drainpipes in ways that make clear how rooms separated by a spiral staircase don't prevent hurtful truths from reaching their subjects. Like the Casita in Encanto, this urban dwelling seems alive, and not at all well. Doors creak, floors moan, mechanical noise blares from the hallways, bulbs spontaneously explode … . If you didn't know better (and many viewers may not), you might be convinced that The Humans, with Skip Lievsay providing sensationally creepy sound design, is a horror movie, and that Brigid and Richard have moved into a haunted house. They have. It's just that the demons here are all internal ones.
Usually, one of the great benefits to movie versions of Broadway hits is that you're treated to the sorts of high-profile casts you could never imagine assembling on the same stage, be it in Doubt or August: Osage County or Into the Woods or something that doesn't star Meryl Streep. But even though Karam's adaptation boasts three Oscar nominees, a TV-comedy icon, and a breakout performer from Lady Bird and Booksmart, you could absolutely imagine this picture's sextet spending an intermission-less hour-and-a-half together, and that proves to be perhaps even more thrilling. Houdyshell, as should be expected, is miraculous as the over-ebullient yet flinty Deidre, and Karam gives the performer a couple of long, unbroken takes that let her hold the camera with masterful assurance. Feldstein, as always, is a bubbly, sardonic delight, and she's beautifully partnered by Yeun, his Richard the party's requisite peacekeeper-outsider who is shown to be both intensely well-meaning and a bit of a fool. Squibb has harrowing moments of near-cognizance and indelible absence; Schumer, despite being dependably wry, is also level-headed, sad, and deeply moving. And Jenkins is at his most divinely Jenkins-y, effortlessly conjuring images of faceless monsters and 9/11 tragedies using only his vocal inflections, and struggling with Erik's facade of cheer while events make his heart break over and over again. As a sextet, these ensemble performers are unimpeachable, and fittingly enough, I saw and adored The Humans on Thanksgiving Day. I'd say that I would make it an annual viewing if I wasn't certain that I'd be watching the film again in a couple hours or so.
RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY
From what I understand, writer/director Johannes Roberts' new reboot of the Resident Evil franchise is quite faithful to the zombie-killing video games that inspired it. So I suppose if you can hear the subtitle Welcome to Raccoon City without reflexively chuckling or wincing, this is the movie for you. Seriously, though: Raccoon City? Who in their right minds would ever choose to live there? I have a family of raccoons that live just outside my apartment, and every night that I pull into my carport and see those things rifling through the trash receptacles or scurrying away from beneath a neighbor's car, I want to move. Granted, those residing in the film's Raccoon City have it even worse: hordes of undead humans and at least one undead dog; a figurative ticking clock that will lead to the entire township's annihilation at 6 a.m.; Donal Logue behaving as though the key to survival is gruesome overacting. Yet for all of the shrieking half-corpses and humongous monstrosities with dozens of oversize eyeballs and the face of Neil McDonough, I have to admit that nothing in Roberts' movie was quite as scary as the sight of a genuine raccoon staring at me from the outdoor top of my apartment's air-conditioning unit.
Then again, I'm not sure this particular Resident Evil is even designed to be scary. Sure, zombies jump out from behind every conceivable nook and cranny, but the creatures don't seem meant to be feared. They're meant to be shot, and Welcome to Raccoon City actually does a decent job of replicating an appropriate video-game sensation. Your response to one of our heroes (or “heroes”) encountering a slavering brain-eater isn't “Aaaaahhhh!” so much as “Kill that sucker!” And they do. Again and again. For an hour and 45 minutes.
As someone whose most laudatory reaction to one of the previous Milla Jovovich Resident Evils has basically been “Meh,” I didn't at all hate this latest one. The origin story was handled efficiently enough, the performances (Logue's and McDonough's excepted) were relatively sturdy, and the whole thing exuded a moderately satisfying Aliens vibe – we got the stalwart, Ripley-esque heroine (Kaya Scodelario), some playful Vasquez-and-Drake sparring, a loathsome Burke-style turncoat, and, belatedly, even a Newt. (Oddly, we also got a Tom Cruise lookalike in Robbie Amell, who momentarily pulled me out of the 1986 Aliens experience and into the 1986 Top Gun experience.) But the film is still awkwardly edited and its visuals mostly forgettable, and the shock effects are so retrograde that the only time I was legitimately startled was when a nearby patron shouted at a fellow movie-goer, “Turn off your f---ing phone!” I was on the side of the shouter, but also couldn't deny that randomly scrolling was probably more enjoyable than Welcome to Raccoon City.
HOUSE OF GUCCI
Three weekends ago, I watched Marvel's Eternals in Chicagoland alongside my brother and sister-in-law. This past weekend, at the same Chicagoland cineplex, the three of us caught Ridley Scott's House of Gucci. We're already making plans for whatever heavily advertised, two-and-a-half-hour-plus, unbelievably insipid pile of expensive Hollywood garbage co-starring Salma Hayek we can see together at Christmas.
I'm reasonably sure that there actually is a satisfying entertainment lurking somewhere inside this bloated, largely dull tale of Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) and her love affair with fashion-label scion Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), a whirlwind of money, luxury, and power that led to her hiring a hit man to off her eventual husband in 1995. But in order to find it, you'd have to hire talents more judicious than director Scott and editor Claire Simpson, and also have to accept the resulting film as maybe boasting enough passable material to fill a two-hour Lifetime-TV time slot with frequent commercial interruptions. (The movie has been scaled like The Godfather, when, as Bro astutely pointed out, it would've worked far more effectively as a campy melodrama in the vein of 1990's Suzanne Pleshette showcase Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean.)
Whenever Lady Gaga is devouring the scenery – and she isn't close to the hungriest actor in sight – House of Gucci is moderately fun, even though nothing about her character makes the slightest bit of sense. I couldn't fathom, for instance, how one extravagant bash at the Guccis' New York estate turned Patrizia from contented housefrau in blue jeans to scheming manipulator in designer gowns in record time, nor how she could so quickly vacillate between murderous rage and pathetic neediness in the latter scenes. Her entire role is basically a succession of clichéd Oscars clips. But despite her meager screen credits to date, Lady Gaga is a bona fide movie star, one of the few we still have, and her electric spark and charisma keep you invested. Unfortunately, enjoying the diva's routines here also means putting up with so much else.
The horribly telegraphed Meet Cute at a masquerade ball in which Patrizia and Maurizio are literally the only guests among dozens not wearing masks. The distracting weirdness of the music cues, with the couple's 1972 wedding underscored by George Michael's “Faith,” a song that didn't debut for another 15 years. The deadening behind-the-scenes activity among the Guccis, through which we're asked to believe that every single Gucci in history was a staggeringly terrible businessman. The appalling “That's-a spicy meatball!” accents from not only Lady Gaga, who more accurately sounds Russian, but from Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and others. (The native Mexican Salma Hayek comes closest to nailing an adequate Italian dialect.) Jared Leto. Oh God, Jared Leto. As with his Suicide Squad Joker, you can see how this portrayal of Maurizio's Uncle Paolo might have been amusing, given the actor's bald pate and (hopefully) embellished jowls and gut and feature-length impersonation of a wimpier Fredo Corleone. But as usual, Leto murders our pleasure, going so far beyond the needs of his role that the character disintegrates and all you're left with is heavily processed fraudulence. This isn't ham. It's Spam.
While it's a close call, House of Gucci isn't quite as unbearable as Eternals. It's at least alive in fits and spurts, and there are always luscious/tacky sets and costumes to look forward to, and Pacino, in his later scenes, even comes close to giving the performance that Robert De Niro should have given in The Irishman. In the end, none of it matters. Scott's second film in two months (following October's vastly superior, still-not-great The Last Duel) is a colossal embarrassment, though I am at least happy knowing that $22-million worth of domestic ticket buyers actually left their homes over the extended Thanksgiving weekend to catch this thing on the big screen. Once they start showing up for an honestly good grown-up-skewing movie, I'll be even more psyched.