Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Encanto, or: Don’t Rat Me Out

*Spoilers follow*

I don’t know quite how it happened except that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to be determined to earn EGOT status at the moment…but our Oscars theme for the month has basically become Lin-Manuel Miranda fest. With the exception of Licorice Pizza, all of our films have ended up involving him in some capacity, though he’s still missing the Oscar for the EGOT. Hopefully that just means he’ll be involved with significantly more film productions then.

The Film:

Encanto

Directors:

Jared Bush & Byron Howard

The Premise:

When the magical Madrigal family’s home and powers are threatened, teenage Mirabel sets out to solve the problem.

The Ramble:

As it turns out, miraculously acquiring special powers and an enchanted, sentient house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…especially when those come along with intense familial pressure.

The central Madrigal family’s origin story is pretty dark, as it involves the murder of matriarch Abuela Alma’s husband shortly after the birth of their triplets. Alone and a refugee, Abuela is granted a miracle when the spirit of her husband, uh, becomes a candle, more or less. The candle represents the family’s magic, and causes a new home to spring from nowhere as a safe haven. What’s more, each member of the family is born with a unique gift, from healing with cooking to influencing the weather and shapeshifting.

Unfortunately, there are two members of the family who aren’t living up to the legacy: Mirabel, who didn’t receive a special gift, and Bruno (who, famously, we don’t talk about).

To make up for her perceived inability to contribute to the family, Mirabel overcompensates, attempting to solve everyone’s problems and make things better for all. Of course, the more she tries to impress, the more Mirabel falls short. This is particularly true on the evening of a big celebration to mark youngest Madrigal Antonio’s new gift (the classic & enviable ability to talk to animals). Having visions of the family home cracking and falling apart, Mirabel disrupts the party with all of this doom and gloom.

Sensing that (like Bruno) there are things troubling the Madrigal family that they’re not discussing, Mirabel is determined to surface the truth and heal what is broken…which may be difficult with her super strong but anxious sister Luisa and seemingly perfect sister Isabela. Accompanied by some memorable musical numbers, Mirabel eventually learns that fortune-telling Bruno had an ominous prophecy before suddenly disappearing. When she realizes that the prophecy seems to predict that Mirabel will bring about the family’s doom, will there still be a place for her as a Madrigal?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Sometimes the plot is stretched a bit thin, but the fun songs, refreshing message, and beautiful animation are enough to keep me entertained. The dancing donkeys during Luisa’s excellent song “Surface Pressure” are by far my favorite.

Possibly because I watched my share of (dysfunctional) Disney romances as a child, it always feels extremely welcome and fairly radical for the studio to release films that have almost no romantic love story. It’s about damn time, honestly. The emphasis is entirely on Mirabel’s growth as a character and the evolution of her family’s perspectives on the nature of their miracle. I really appreciate the way the film tackles heavy themes like healing from intergenerational trauma, the circumstances in which a gift can become a curse, and the toxic nature of perfectionism. It’s quite sweet and very needed that Mirabel’s gift is (spoiler/not really a spoiler) her empathy and curiosity in problem-solving.

Possibly my main criticism here is that some of the themes are wrapped up neatly rather than adequately explored. Part of me wanted an even more radical message from Disney in which the Madrigals lost their powers. It’s a little odd how the family is almost worshipped by the others in the village, and it seems like the power dynamic could very easily take a dark turn. People of the village, at least draft up some kind of constitutional framework.

And, though Abuela certainly is carrying a lot of grief and trauma as a widowed refugee, she does get something of a free pass to carry out some really toxic behavior. Her attitude to the family’s legacy results in her own son living inside the walls of the house for YEARS because he’s tired of hurting and disappointing the family with his gift. Which, by the way, he doesn’t control. Abuela also shames Mirabel when her granddaughter is 5 years old because she doesn’t receive a gift…which, again, is out of her control. The ways in which family compromise means Mirabel has to overlook a lot of toxic patterns does feel realistic, but maybe not the most satisfying conclusion for a children’s movie.

Those songs are going to be stuck in my head until the end of time, though.

Would my blog wife carry this one’s heavy burdens or decide not to ever talk about it? Read her review to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Royal Night Out, or: God, Raves the Queen

If you can’t party after literally defeating the Nazis in Europe, when exactly is an appropriate time to celebrate?  That is the philosophical question this week’s film considers, while also pondering how many people in 1945 England just happened to have Hitler effigies lying around for an improvised Bonfire Night.

The Film:

A Royal Night Out

The Premise:

After the Allied victory in WWII, princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spend a wild night out on the town.

The Ramble:

May 8, 1945, aka VE Day.  It seems as if all of London is off to celebrate–everyone, that is, except for two Windsor princesses very much in need of a night out.

After much pleading with their parents, Elizabeth and Margaret finally strike a deal:  the two sisters will get a night out until 1:00am, provided they return with a report on how the masses respond to the King’s midnight address (most likely feedback:  who the eff picks midnight as a good time to address the nation?!?!).  Though they will attempt to blend in with the crowd, they will be accompanied by two royal guards, who will serve as their chaperones.

A woman in a blue suit and a man in an officer's uniform stand in an elegantly decorated room.

Margaret is so ready to party that she doesn’t even care.  Dressed in matching pink, the two are vaguely reminiscent of the twins in The Shining as they descend the grand staircase.  I absolutely cannot imagine willingly matching my sister’s outfit for a night out on the town, but hey…different times.

Almost immediately, the princesses’ plans seem to be thwarted when they end up in a ritzy party full of the stuffy old nobility (is there any other kind?).  Margaret gets into shenanigans with a naval officer and easily ditches all members of her party.  Elizabeth loses the guards too, but doesn’t manage to catch up with her sister.

While Elizabeth does manage to hitch a ride on the bus in pursuit of Margaret, she is on a decidedly less fun bus.  Even on the boring regular bus, fares must be paid–a thought that hasn’t occurred to Elizabeth.  Luckily, her seatmate Jack, an airman, comes to the rescue by paying her fare, though they both manage to fall off the bus in a way that’s sweet in a rom-com, but would be horrendously painful in real life.

A young woman on a bus drinks alcohol from a glass, surrounded by other revelers.

Having failed to track down Margaret, Elizabeth is in a bar when the clock strikes midnight.  The rowdy masses quiet down and respectfully listen to George’s speech–everyone except for Jack.  He reacts angrily to the speech and dismisses all of the posh gits in power.  Elizabeth is annoyed but needs help getting to Trafalgar Square, where she believes she’ll find Margaret.  There are so many goddamn people in that square that that I would have immediately turned around and gone home, sister or no sister.

Margaret has, in fact, gone to Trafalgar–but by now she’s on her way to a house of ill repute with , who drugs her drink(!?!??!?!).  The owner of this establishment, who seems to be some kind of mafioso (or whatever kind of person just happens to collect horse heads in a bucket), comes to her rescue.  True to form, Margaret is keen to get to the next place rumored to have a great party, and she now has a new escort.

Two young women swing dance together, wearing pink dresses and gloves.

Elizabeth and Margaret finally reunite, though their guards and the military police happen to arrive at the same location.  When the military police seize Jack, Elizabeth reveals her true identity.  But can she help him even though he can never be…part of her world?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Imagine a film is made about your epic night out…and you basically just drink and dance and come home a little past curfew.  Don’t get me wrong–our leads in the film are great, and Princess Margaret is appropriately the queen of partying.  (Speaking of the cast, I would have killed for Emily Watson and Rupert Everett to have more to do; I love them so much, but most of their cues in the script must have been “look disapproving.”)  However, this night out is a bit of a non-story, and I have trouble understanding the point of this film.  We learn about the experiences of royalty and civilian alike during the war, and even get a sobering look at neighborhoods bombed in the Blitz.  Everything else about this film is so breezy that these moments don’t have the emotional impact they should.

For a film about a night out, there’s a lot of time spent running around London in a farcical way, which gets tiresome.  And it may not be a great sign for a film when a decent number of major plot points remind me of Disney’s Aladdin?  But without the catchy songs and upbeat genie sidekick.  Perhaps I also had unrealistic expectations of how the film’s plot would play out.

Things I Expected But Did Not Happen in This Film:

  • Rupert Everett and Emily Watson are crowned the actual King and Queen of England in honor of their disapproving frowns
  • Princess Margaret runs away and becomes an acrobat but is fired after she tries to skin the circus animals to make a fur shrug
  • Princess Elizabeth joins a group of anarchists determined to rid the UK of the monarchy
  • Jeeves and Wooster are chased around a nightclub after stealing a cow creamer

Things That Did Happen in This Film:

  • Elizabeth rather elegantly chugs a pint
  • Margaret goes to a club of ill repute and refers to herself as P2 in an incredibly posh manner
  • Elizabeth pushes around a passed out Margaret in a wheelbarrow
  • Emily Watson as the Queen Mother imperiously asks “Hwhere have you been?”
  • King George VI reveals his most secret (and arguably saddest) desire:  to ride public transit

The moral of the story is I only care about the royal family when they’re being insane, and there’s not a ton of that going on here.  Where is the Princess Margaret movie we deserve???

Would my blog wife crown this one queen or wear the crown herself?  Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Queen of Katwe, or: The Chess Version of Billy Elliot

Feminist February may be in its 3rd year(?!?!?!), but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for firsts.  This week’s film is our first Disney feature on the Blog Collab, first set in Uganda, and first (and probably last) all about chess.  Definitely not the first to make me cry an embarrassing number of times.

The Film:

Queen of Katwe

The Premise:

The true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl who rose quickly to become a chess master.

The Ramble:

For those of you, like me, who always want to know what a title means–Katwe is a slum in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, where Phiona grows up.  One of four children, Phiona takes care of her younger siblings and sells maize to support the family.  Since her father died, Phiona’s single mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o!!!), struggles to keep the family together and under a roof.  Phiona’s older sister, Night, has had enough and takes off with her scooter riding boyfriend.  After this act of rebellion, Night helps the family financially but is essentially dead to her mother.

A young woman speaks angrily to a young man on a motorcycle.
You kids get off my lawn!

Meanwhile, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo!) is an engineer searching for a job in Kampala.  When he discovers all of the engineering jobs are completely about who you know rather than what you know, he must settle for a part-time gig as a coach with a small ministry.  Luckily, the family has a second string as his wife Sara is an elementary school teacher.

In Robert’s chest beats the tender heart of a chess nerd, and his passion project with the ministry is trying to get all the kids hooked on chess.  He hopes to develop the talents of his pupils in order to show the privileged what they can achieve.  No unresolved childhood issues there at all.

An African man holds up a chess piece to a group of children who look on.
Yeah, you’ve already lost me, dude.

Enter Phiona, stage right.  When she stumbles upon the chess club in action (and gets free food–possibly the only reason I’d ever stick around for chess), Phiona decides to try playing despite some of the kids being little assholes who tease her for being dirty.  Though initially confused by the many rules of the game (I’m there with you, girl), with practice Phiona learns to master the game–even winning against the group’s current champion.  In a scenario that feels way too real, Phiona actually feels bad about winning and apologizes for it.

Soon, Robert figures out a way around the snobby prep school’s efforts to exclude the team from a chess championship.  However, it turns out stuck-up rich kids are the least of his problems when Phiona’s mother finds out what she and her brother have been up to.  Suspecting ulterior motives and fearing her children will be unable to earn money for the family, Nakku forbids them from playing chess again.  That is, until Robert promises he will find a way to get them into school if they’re allowed to play.

I think it’s no spoiler to tell you that the rich kids are absolute douches and Phiona wins against the smug little assholes.  Still, she doubts her abilities and believes she only won because her opponent let her.

A room is filled with African teens competing in many different chess games.
NERDS.

Nevertheless, things seem to be falling into place until Phiona’s brother is in a terrible accident, the family is left without money, and they are evicted from their home.  Phiona also starts to realize the injustice of the chess world.  Though she has beaten players with the world-class mentors, she goes back to a dissatisfying existence where mundane chores take precedence over the exciting(?) game of chess.  Despairing of her life, Phiona belongs neither in Katwe nor among the wealthy.

A group of youths sit at an outdoor table at a restaurant, toasting each other with fries and ketchup.
If the prize for winning a chess championship were fries and ketchup, I might be a bit more inclined to make an effort.

After a series of wins, Phiona is determined to continue playing chess–and, vitally, to make money from it.  She and Robert travel to Russia to compete professionally, which may help her earn a stipend to support her family.  However, things do not go as planned, and a disappointed Phiona is ready to give up.  When the rainy season washes away their home, the fraught relationship between Nakku and Night reaches a boiling point, and Robert faces a difficult career decision, does this mean the end of Phiona’s dreams?

Clearly not or it wouldn’t be a Disney film.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I wouldn’t call this a new favorite, but it has a stellar cast, a fairly action-packed plot (for a film about chess), and a genuine heart holding it all together.  Thematically, this has a lot in common with Billy Elliot, though the PG rating and Phiona’s set of challenges take a different angle (and there are significantly fewer songs by the Jam in this one).  I am ridiculously susceptible to crying at inspirational speeches, and David Oyelowo has more than his share.  Damnit, dude.

Phiona (and Madina Nalwanga in her first film role?!??!) in particular is a wonderful character to watch, with a quiet determination tempered with a realistic amount of self-doubt, commitment to duty, and frustration.  We are of course rooting for her the whole time, but the film doesn’t gloss over the limitations that poverty, gender, and geography place on her ability to succeed.  Nakku is also incredibly sympathetic as a mother whose concern is the survival of her family–even if that means settling for a less than ideal future.  As a single mother with no interest in remarrying, Nakku is fucking fierce and a genius at survival.

I want Lupita Nyong’o to adopt me and David Oyelowo to be my life coach.  Or I could just bring them coffee, whatever.

Was this a checkmate for my blog wife or did she enjoy it about as much as a game of chess IRL?  Find out in her review here!