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I thought Encanto's songs were forgettable. So I went back to see what I was missing

Naturally, <em>Encanto</em> has become a phenomenon — particularly on the strength of those chart-topping blockbuster songs, which I'd said "fell really flat."
Naturally, Encanto has become a phenomenon — particularly on the strength of those chart-topping blockbuster songs, which I'd said "fell really flat."

Back in November, I hosted an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour about the Disney movie Encanto, which I found to be visually lovely and charming but ultimately somewhat minor. Worse, in what would prove to be an absolutely massive time-release self-burn, I declared the songs to be "forgettable" and groaned about the ubiquity of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose contributions had been splashed across no fewer than five high-profile movies in 2021 alone. (Was I pleased with myself for noting that he might want to take a break; to run away for the summer and perhaps go upstate? Reader, I was.)

Naturally, Encanto has become a phenomenon — particularly on the strength of those chart-topping blockbuster songs, which I'd said "fell really flat." I haven't seen a reviewer so extravagantly miss an oncoming sensation since a late-'70s edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide declared that The Rocky Horror Picture Show "fails to excite." Now, here I was, Mr. Fails-To-Excite, sporting one of his coldest-ever takes.

My dear friend and colleague Glen Weldon dubbed me "WILDLY wrong" on Twitter. My DMs — mental note: write an essay titled, "Why Do I Keep My DMs Open Why" — were considerably worse. One of the latest missives popped up just this week and read as follows: "You need to discuss your Encanto slander from November. Number 1 song. Number 1 album. Surprised?"

Has it sunk to the level of vitriol we received for disliking Don't Look Up, in a PCHH episode that compelled at least one person to accuse us of being in the pocket of Big Oil? No, and seriously, as an aside: If you can't defend a movie you like without hurling accusations of bad faith at those who disagree with you, you're probably not as righteous as you think you are. ANYWAY. A lot of people hated my take on Encanto, made fun of me for missing the boat on its songs, and have asked me if I've reconsidered in the weeks since.

So I rewatched Encanto — the first was at a theatrical screening for critics, while the second took place on my couch. On second viewing, the film did feel richer in its characterizations and more nuanced in its messaging about familial obligations, shared secrets, and what a family's generations owe to each other. The second time around, I was especially struck by the kinetic visuals and the way the family's magical house both filled the screen with sight gags and lent a sense of motion and rhythm to Encanto's score.

/ Disney

But the songs? Honestly, while they were bound to grow on me simply through multiple exposures, they just ... to me, they still don't feel strong enough to explain their status as a cultural phenomenon. They do an enormous amount of heavy lifting (literally, in the case of "Surface Pressure") in the areas of character development and, like in "The Family Madrigal," introduction. "We Don't Talk About Bruno" and "Surface Pressure" succeed in capturing the downsides of the supernatural "gifts" most Madrigal family members receive, while "Dos Oruguitas" proves an emotional match for the visuals recalling the family's painful backstory. But melodically, they just haven't taken hold for me the way they have for seemingly everyone else. I wanted them to be funnier, or catchier, or to stick in my head for longer, or else maybe so much exposure to Miranda's arsenal of songwriting tricks dulled their charms for me. They just don't knock me out, much as I wish they did. Maybe they will someday.

With both Encanto and Don't Look Up, several people have come at me armed with various measures of popularity — the Billboard charts for the Encanto soundtrack, for example, or Netflix's boasts about the Don't Look Up streaming numbers, which we're given no choice but to take at face value — to demonstrate that a review missed the mark. To put it mildly, this is an unconvincing approach: After all, a virtually infinite amount of actual junk has been hugely popular. But I am compelled to reconsider when I see so many people swept up by the magic of something I'd dismissed — when their kids are memorizing every word of every song and asking questions, or when even Glen Weldon's icy black heart grows three sizes.

It cannot be overstated that I — and I'd like to think most reviewers — don't approach any work of art with the hope of being unmoved by it. We want to be swept away, entertained, delighted, spurred to action, you name it; we want creators to succeed and art to be great, because why wouldn't we? So when I'm more or less indifferent to something everyone else loves, 1) I have to be honest about what I am and am not feeling; and 2) it feels more than anything else like a missed opportunity. No one wants to be the guy who says The Rocky Horror Picture Show "fails to excite" — and not just because those words have been proven laughably false for nearly 50 years. To miss the boat is to miss out on all the fun everyone else is having, and who wants that?

If you liked this excerpt from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, consider subscribing to our newsletter to get recommendations on what's making us happy every week.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

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