Every Little Thing She Does

Encanto

by Hope Madden

No one wants to believe themselves ordinary. Not even calm, supportive Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz). But ordinariness happens to be her defining quality because she is the first Madrigal in three generations who has no magical gifts.

Her mother can heal with food. Her sister has super strength. Her cousin can shape shift. But when the day came for Mirabel to receive her magical gift, nothing happened. When the magic of the Madrigal family — magic that has kept the entire town of Encanto in peaceful enchantment for decades — starts to crack, is it all because of Mirabel?

One of many reasons that Disney’s 60th feature Encanto charms is that this unsure adolescent does not find out she’s secretly a princess. She has no makeover. It isn’t romance that helps her see her own specialness. Thank God.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is another reason. Infectious, upbeat and surprisingly insightful, the songs in Encanto speak to individual insecurities in a way that hardly suggests the magical nature of the film. Lyrics illustrate sincere worries about letting people down, living up to expectations and other universal and yet intimate worries.

If you worry the film sounds a bit drab and reasonable, fear not because the vibrant color, lush landscapes, intricate interiors and clever, high-energy animation keep the magic popping. Set in Colombia, Encanto reflects the magical realism favored in the literature of the land and that, too, makes for a unique cartoon experience.

John Leguizamo and Maria Cecilia Botero join Beatriz in a voice cast that brims with pathos, love and energy, just like the family they depict. Much about the complex interactions within the family feels like honest if uncharted territory for a Disney outing — flawed heroes, loving villains, and the notion that selfishness and selflessness as equally problematic.

The flip side of that coin is that the world of Encanto doesn’t feel very big and the stakes don’t feel very high. If that were the only drawback to co-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith’s approach it would hardly be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, they undermine the complexity they find in familial love with a too-tidy ending that robs Encanto and its inhabitants of some hard-won lessons.

Louder Than Words

tick, tick…BOOM!

by George Wolf

What’s an aspiring writer to do when his first major work is bypassed for the eager anticipation about what he’ll do next?

He takes his agent’s advice to “move on to the next one. And write what you know.”

Broadway trailblazer Jonathan Larson – Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and composer of Rent – agonized for 8 years over Superbia, a futuristic musical that never earned a full production. When Larson did move on to the next one, it became tick, tick…BOOM!, his autobiographical story of a composer named Jon whose final days as a twentysomething bring feelings of rejection and inadequacy.

ttBOOM! made it to off-Broadway in 1990, with revivals beginning in 2001,15 years after both the phenomenal success of Rent and Larson’s tragic death from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35.

Now, director Lin-Manuel Miranda brings Larson’s story of struggling artistry to the screen with an infectious exuberance and undying respect for those committed to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jon, who waits tables in a New York diner, works on his musical and worries about how much other people have accomplished before turning 30 (“Sondheim wrote West Side Story at 27!”)

While Jon struggles to find enough money to keep the lights on, his longtime girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) mulls a tempting job offer in the Berkshires, and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) decides it’s finally time to give up the Broadway dream and get a real 9 to 5 gig.

While everyone – including Sondheim himself! (a terrific Bradley Whitford) – tells him Superbia needs one more big song in the second act, Jon rebuffs any need for a life “backup plan,” even as his tenuous relationship status and a co-worker’s HIV diagnosis remind him of each precious tick of the clock.

Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hanson, Fosse/Verdon) effectively layer the musical segments with real-life inspirations and one-man show beginnings that build to workshop performances and Broadway fantasies. From the birthday defiance of “30/90” to the pleading interplay between Garfield, Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens (as Susan’s stage persona) on “Come to Your Senses,” Miranda’s staging is lively and stylish, peppered by plenty of Easter eggs and cameos saluting years of musical greats (including Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth and two of Hamiton‘s Schuyler sisters in the show-stopping “Sunday” alone).

Garfield delivers an electric, committed performance, singing well and absolutely selling the manic, no-sleep-til-curtain-time tunnel vision that Larson clings to instead of admitting that there might be any other way to live.

And as a tribute to this life, the creative process and one man who personified both, tick, tick…BOOM! is a runaway hit. But in the process, it forgoes a sense of intimacy that might have brought us closer to Larson himself. That’s a trade-off the film ultimately seems comfortable with. Miranda, Garfield and company are going big here, and end up reaching the balcony with crowd-pleasing panache.

Block Party

In the Heights

by George Wolf

I know there’s still plenty of bad out there, but it’s summer, people are getting out in the heat, and it feels like maybe we deserve a few minutes to celebrate.

How about 143 minutes? In the Heights makes them all count, with a summer celebration practically bursting with joyful exuberance.

It’s been 13 years since the stage production won 4 Tony Awards – including Best Musical, on top of Best Original Score and Best Actor for Lin-Manuel Miranda. Since then, Miranda conquered the world with Hamilton (maybe you’ve heard it), so now what seems like a follow up is really a return to his roots.

Miranda’s aged out of the starring role, so Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, A Star Is Born) answers the bell with a breakout turn as Usnavi – the Washington Heights, New York storekeeper with a dream.

As the days until a blackout wind down and the temperature ramps up, Usnavi’s block is buzzing with welcome arrivals, planned departures, and romance in the air.

Nina (Leslie Grace) is home from Stanford with major news to break to her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) while she reconnects with Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher at Kevin’s neighborhood car service.

For his part, Usnavi has finally scored a date with his crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but it might be too late – she has her sights set on leaving the block behind with a new apartment uptown.

So while the gossip is raging at the hair salon, and the piraqua guy (Miranda) tries to compete with Mister Softee (Hamilton‘s Chris Jackson, who played Benny in the stage version) as the king of cool treats, fate intervenes. Usnavi discovers his bodega has sold a winning lottery ticket – a stroke of luck worth 96 G’s – and then the lights go out.

Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) proves a worthy choice to move the project from stage to screen with magic intact. The most accomplished of directors (see Attenborough and Eastwood) have fallen hard trying to make musical numbers pop on film, but Chu gives Christopher Scott’s choreography the space to be graceful and the intimacy to be gritty.

Miranda’s music meshes irresistibly with the sounds of the street, and from swimming pools to rooftops, more than a few of Chu’s grandly-staged set pieces nearly soar off the screen. And it won’t be just fans of this show who will be giddy, as the Wicked faithful will find plenty of reason to be excited Chu is already in pre-production on that long-awaited film adaptation.

Source writer Quiara Alegría Hudes pens the screenplay here as well, with a heartfelt, character-driven ode to cultural strength and sacrifice. Bookended by Usnavi telling the story of his block to a cute group of youngsters, the tale of Washington Heights is layered with respect for immigrant families just fighting for a place to belong.

And while they may be fighting against gentrification and bigotry, the film’s heart remains unquestionably hopeful, so downright wholesome that even the lack of sweat-stained bodies in the 100-degree heat feels like part of the movie magic.

In the Heights has been saving that magic for the big screen experience, and now that it’s here it is indeed worthy of celebrating – in a theater, with a crowd.

Are we really “back to normal?” Can the American dream still be alive?

For 143 minutes, it sure feels like it.