Latest reviews of new albums:
  • Score by Germaine Franco
  • Songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda

An extremely colourful and beautifully-designed film, Encanto is an interesting contrast to the usual Disney formula. The “hero” is not a princess, doesn’t have magical powers – indeed, nicely, she is the only member of her family who doesn’t – there isn’t really a “villain” at all – instead, the film’s point is that family is what’s important, not magic. I can report that the member of my household who falls into the film’s target demographic thinks it is completely wonderful and is very happy to spend time in its company via the magic of streaming – perhaps magic does have a place after all.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a busy man and alongside writing musicals and directing movies he also has time to launch a bid to become this generation’s Alan Menken. After his wonderful songs for Moana it was great to see him come back for another bite of the Disney cherry – he was involved very early in the film’s production, even receiving a writing credit on it (perhaps he is also launching a bid to become this generation’s Howard Ashman). There are eight songs in the movie, but interestingly they seem to be deliberately written in a more “naturalistic” way than songs in musicals usually are – several of them seem to be attempts to create a kind of folk song vibe, the sort of song that people might actually sing to each other, rather than theatrical showstoppers littered through the film.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

A consequence of this is actually that they just aren’t as memorable as you might expect – they’re fast-moving, melodically fluid, feature almost continuous overlapping vocal lines – they’re good songs, but you have to approach them understanding what they are. In other words – for the most part, it’s unlikely your kids are going to be walking around singing these like they might “You’re Welcome” or “How Far I’ll Go” from Miranda’s previous batch of Disney songs.

The opening “Family Madrigal” encapsulates all that (Madrigal being the family’s name – this is not actually a madrigal as in the Renaissance-style song). It introduces the various members of the family – except Bruno – in a fast, chipper way. But you’re not particularly likely to remember it once it’s finished. The pick of the “Disney-type” songs is the one which is about Bruno – “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” – which isn’t wildly different in style but keeps a sharper focus. That’s the one the kids will definitely like. The lovely “Dos Oruguitas” (in Spanish – as it is in the film – though there is an English-language version as well) is however undoubtedly the highlight – a gorgeous, simple song beautifully performed by Sebastian Yatra.

Encanto is the 60th film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The first 59 were all scored by white men. The 60th isn’t. While it’s a bit shameful it’s taken so long, it’s great that the sequence has been broken. Composing the film’s score is Germaine Franco, who worked on Coco in a smaller capacity and was John Powell’s assistant for a long time; more recently she co-composed the entertaining, colourful score for Dora and the Lost City of Gold with John Debney. Her music for this is actually quite magical, serving as a perfect complement to the colourful, warm movie.

Germaine Franco

The score’s primary theme, essentially the Madrigal Family Theme, is introduced in great style in “Abre Los Ojos”. We start with gentle strings and guitar playing a lilting melody before the theme itself emerges for fuller orchestral forces – it’s got a fantasy movie feeling to it, full of magic and wonder, and it’s really quite delightful. The next cue “Meet La Familia” brings us Mirabel’s Theme, which is more sprightly and colourful and injected with Colombian flavours.

Franco builds much of her score from these two themes, but she does so much with them that neither ever comes close to outstaying its welcome. Even when the melodies aren’t being used, those two distinctive styles are employed – the magical fantasy sound, and the colourful Colombian sound. In “Antonio’s Voice” vocals are used terrifically – it’s a wonderful cue – and interestingly this time the ethnic colours are being used on the main theme rather than Mirabel’s. There’s a bit of jazz in “El Baile Madrigal” – it’s not often you could dance to a piece of instrumental underscore from a Disney animation, but you could to this one.

I love “Breakfast Questions”, which manages to tread a line between comedy and heartfelt drama and does it very well. More serious drama unfolds in “Mirabel’s Discovery” – pounding stingers interrupt the tension now and again – and these lead into a genuinely dark piece of action music which could be from a horror movie. Yet no sooner is this over than we get the truly delightful “The Dysfunctional Tango”, with echoes of Danny Elfman. Not long after there’s a comic book feel to “The Ultimate Vision” with racing string runs and everything, leading to darker and more villainous material – it’s a terrific cue.

There’s another tango in “Les Hermanas Pelean”, this one full of drama, and following this is the rollicking “The House Knows”, which features another very different rendition of the main theme, and then a fine action track “La Candela” (one of the moments in the score where the influence of John Powell is perhaps most keenly felt – he actually receives a “score consultant” credit in the film). The magic is back in the gorgeous “El Rio”, then (after actually being only subtly present for the middle part of the score) so is the local flavour in the vibrant, wonderful “It Was Me”. “El Camino de Mirabel” is flavoursome, vivid and completely delightful, it sounds like a finale cue but we actually get the brilliant “Mirabel’s Cumbia” to do that job instead – an explosion of colour set as a kind of instrumental folk song. (A few bonus tracks follow on the album’s digital edition, the highlight being the guitar track “Impresiones del Encanto”, which I presume was recorded specially for the album.)

While the songs have grown on me a lot, I do think they work better in context than on the album (which is quite unusual for a Disney musical); but I really like the score, which is injected with local flavours with real passion but is a traditional fantasy adventure score at heart. My only criticism is that while the two central themes serve the film very well and are thrown through so many different variations by the composer, they don’t really stick in the mind very much afterwards – but of course, given the film’s most pivotal moments are all underscored with songs, that is perhaps no great surprise. Germaine Franco has written a really strong score and hopefully there’s much more to come from her in future.

Rating: **** | |

Tags: , , ,

  1. Mama Symphonia (Reply) on Saturday 8 January, 2022 at 16:23

    One of my favorite animated films in a long time. It’s interesting to hear that she worked with John Powell, as I can hear his influence all over the score, but especially in the cues that open and close the film. In fact when I first saw this in the theater and the main theme played over the title, my immediate thought was “wait… did I somehow miss that Powell was scoring this?” This isn’t to take anything away from Franco’s work of course–God knows I wish more people would aspire to write like John Powell.

    It’s a joy to see these reviews pop up in my inbox James 🙂 Thanks for doing what you do.

  2. Tim (Reply) on Friday 4 February, 2022 at 15:00

    I was stunned by Franco’s original score! I will be keeping an eye out for her work. Glad to hear that there are new (to me) names composing beautiful MELODIES!