Encanto (PG, 99 mins)
Verdict: A real charmer
A Boy called Christmas (PG, 106 mins)
Verdict: An early cracker
Here’s a not-very-good pub quiz question: if Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was the first, then what is Encanto?
Answer: it’s the 60th feature film made or distributed since 1937 by Walt Disney Animation Studios, and classics such as Snow White, Pinocchio and The Jungle Book notwithstanding, it’s one of the best.
Mind you, times have changed since Jiminy Cricket explained to Pinocchio the meaning of conscience.
In those days, there were one or two pointed moral messages per animated film.
Welcome to the family Madrigal where every child is blessed with a magic gift unique to them. Everyone, that is, except Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz)
Now, there are dozens, which can get wearing, but when they are wrapped into a package of entertainment as handsome as Encanto, with original songs written by the indefatigable Lin-Manuel Miranda, so much the better.
It is set in the mountains of Colombia, where the Madrigal family have settled after decades earlier fleeing a kind of pogrom, in which the husband of Abuela Alma (in English, Grandma Alma) was murdered (not very Disney, I know, but it’s sensitively depicted).
Voiced by Colombian actress Maria Cecilia Botero, Abuela is now a formidable matriarch, presiding over a clan with special powers who live in an enchanted house at the heart of a charmed town.
A magic candle kept her and her baby triplets safe from the violence, and the candle’s seemingly everlasting flame is still the source of the ‘encanto’ or enchantment.
But the story is told from the perspective of her granddaughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), the only Madrigal not to be ritually anointed, in a traditional fifth-birthday ceremony, with magical powers.
One sister can make flowers bloom anywhere, and to Mirabel’s indignation has ‘never even had a bad hair day’. Another has superhuman strength. An aunt can control the weather.
‘Encanto’ introduces the Madrigals, a compelling and complicated extended family who live in a wondrous and charmed place in the mountains of Colombia
But bespectacled Mirabel has no special gifts. She’s just jolly nice. Gradually, her ‘otherness’ draws her to her Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), the Madrigal outcast (‘sometimes family weirdos just get a bum rap,’ she observes).
Bruno can see into the future, but that’s not much fun as a superpower because there’s trouble brewing, threatening the enchanted flame.
Still, this is Disney so it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Mirabel comes into her own when the family is threatened, and all ends happily and wholesomely.
Jointly directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard (whose credits include the marvellous 2016 film Zootopia and shouldn’t be confused with all those movies ‘by Ron Howard’), Encanto unfolds with terrific elan.
Above all, the computer animation is a joy, especially the way the house is given apersonality of its own, reminiscent of the furniture characters in 1991’s Beauty And The Beast.
And, as with Pixar’s charming Mexico-set Coco (2017), any right-on grumbles about Hollywood’s so-called cultural appropriation really should be dismissed… this film is another glorious celebration of Latino family and folklore, and a worthy 60th for Disney.
The origin story of Father Christmas is re-imagined in Gil Kenan’s live action A Boy Called Christmas
A Boy Called Christmas is another delight, also aimed at children, although it will embrace the whole family in a warm cinematic hug.
Adapted from the book by Matt Haig and narrated by Dame Maggie Smith, who plays the mock-stern aunt to three cuter-than-cute children whose mother has died, it also carries powerful messages, mostly about bereavement.
‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ says the great Dame, which in some contexts might count as a platitude but fits this sweet film perfectly.
Really, it’s a Santa Claus origin story, and any objections to its non-religious content will surely be swamped by the abundant wit and sheer charm of the tale Dame Maggie’s Aunt Ruth tells the children, about a boy called Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) in long-ago Finland, who went searching for the mystical elf kingdom of Elfhelm.
There’s a flying reindeer, a talking mouse, a silly king, a cackling crone, fabulous special-effects and just about every other ingredient you might wish for, to see in the festive season, including a top-notch cast also featuring Jim Broadbent, Sally Hawkins, Toby Jones, Kristen Wiig and Stephen Merchant. Directed with great panache by Gil Kenan, who cowrote with Ol Parker, it’s an early Christmas cracker
Sassy Gaga can’t save Gucci
Lady Gaga stars as Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (15, 157 mins)
House Of Gucci (15, 157 mins)
Verdict: A fashion disaster
Ridley Scott’s lavish new film has divided critics, as I’m sure it will audiences.
From where I was sitting (for at least 30 minutes more than I would have liked), it was far too long, muddled both in narrative and tone, uncertain in its occasional attempts at comedy, and unnecessarily burdened with the distraction of English-speaking actors speaking English with Italian accents.
As you’ll probably be aware by now, it tells the undoubtedly fascinating true story of how low-born Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) came to marry the fashion empire heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), how their marriage foundered, and how, in 1995, she had him murdered.
Much of the publicity has focused on Gaga’s teenage experience of sexual assault, which she used to inform a performance so intensely committed that she stayed in character, on set and off, for nine months.
Gucci canvas hats off to her for that, and I won’t join those sniggering at her codItalian vowels, either.
She does no better or worse than anyone else, and in fact compounds her status, established by 2018’s A Star Is Born, as a fine and charismatic actress.
Of the other star names involved, Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino also do splendid work, playing elderly Gucci brothers Rodolfo and Aldo, who divided up the empire between them.
But as the latter’s idiotic son, Paolo, an unrecognisable Jared Leto is little more than a pantomime turn, offering moments of fun but also a sense that Scott and his writers are forcing humour into a movie that needs remedial work more urgently in other areas.
All of which is a shame, because, as you would expect, it looks great.
Real life drama as medical staff combat Covid in the first wave of the pandemic…
For anyone who treats the cinema as escapism from the heartaches and headaches of everyday life, I can’t honestly recommend The First Wave (★★★★✩ 15, 93 mins). It’s a harrowing documentary following staff and patients at a beleaguered New York City hospital, through last year’s devastating first wave of the coronavirus epidemic.
But Emmy-winning director Matthew Heineman has crafted a superb film, both hugely moving and tremendously inspiring. He and his camera get sometimes startling access, as lives are lost and families grieve. None of this is for the faint-hearted.
His focus is on Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, and specifically on one incredibly dedicated doctor and a pair of dangerously-ill patients, one of them a nurse herself, and both with young children. Anyone who thinks that the pandemic has somehow been exaggerated, or even invented as the more extreme conspiracy theorists believe, should watch and learn.
A famous conspiracy theorist, director Oliver Stone, also has a documentary out this week, timed to coincide not so much with the 58th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, as with the release 30 years ago of his controversial political thriller JFK.
JFK Revisited: Through The Looking-Glass (★★★✩✩ 15, 118 mins) expands on that drama, using evidence not available then to reinforce the thesis (and indeed a thesis is what it feels like, during some of the film’s many earnest interviews) that Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, did not act alone.
As for who knew much more than they ever let on, Stone points the finger unequivocally at CIA director Allen Dulles, whose place on the Warren Commission investigating the crime was, this documentary implies, carefully calculated not to reveal the truth, but obscure it.
Both films are in cinemas.