It’s hard to praise Disney’s latest, Encanto, without sounding both effusive and cliched. Stuffed full of colour, emotion, an incredible soundtrack of songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a soothing score from Germaine Franco, the studio’s 60th animated feature is genuinely enjoyable and guaranteed to make the whole family sing.
Directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush (Zootopia), with a script from Bush and Charise Castro Smith, the film avoids the pitfalls of well-worn formulas and brings audiences something joy-filled, fresh and genuine. Though the story at the film’s surface will be familiar to most—a young girl’s journey to self-discovery—the film’s Colombian locale brings with it a host of new perspectives and musical touch-points, which all serve to elevate it from the formulaic to the enchanting.
Encanto follows Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a wise-cracking and upbeat daughter of the extraordinary and magical Madrigal family. Years ago, as she was fleeing the unrest and violence in her country, the matriarch of the family, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), was blessed with a miracle that created a hidden, charmed place in the mountains for the family to shelter—the Encanto. Since then, the family’s “casita” has gifted each family member with a special ability—control of the weather, shape-shifting, healing and more—all, that is, except Mirabel.
As the family gets ready to celebrate the youngest member’s gift reveal, Mirabel sees what appear to be cracks in the Madrigal’s charmed home. Determined to save her beloved “casita” and her family’s magic, she sets out to find what’s putting them both in danger and discovers her true strength along the way.
There are definite parallels to other Disney heroines, both in terms of Mirabel’s personality and her journey, but spotlighting the complexities and difficulties of familial relationships sets this particular film apart. As Mirabel delves into the mystery of her family, she discovers the walls aren’t the only thing crumbling in the Encanto. The dual weights of duty and expectation have put unsustainable pressure on each individual Madrigal and though outwardly content, most are hiding their true feelings. Whether your family is biological, found or a combination of the two, it’s hard not to feel a deep kinship with at least one, if not more, of this complicated animated family.
It was a bit of a gamble for the filmmakers to go with what amounts to twelve main characters—the entirety of the central family—but they make it work. The film smartly kicks off with a catchy ditty, “The Family Madrigal”, which sees Mirabel describing each main character and their special gift to the children of the village. So with cleverly crafted song lyrics and timely reminders, everyone does their level best to make things as clear as possible. That doesn’t prevent the odd bit of confusion as you wrack your brain trying to remember who is related to who, but those moments are mercifully few and far between.
It helps that animators have taken care to create twelve unique faces, avoiding the well-founded criticism of characters in Frozen and other Disney Revival projects. And it doesn’t stop there. Each Madrigal has their own visually stunning bedroom refuge, the theme of which relates to their individual power—a jungle world for Antonio, who can communicate with animals, or a perfect garden for Isabela, who can channel the beauty of nature. And it’s not just visual opulence for the sake of it. These amazing worlds within the “casita” contrast pointedly with Mirabel’s imperfect but loved old nursery.
Though plentiful, the Madrigals are each well-thought out and well-rounded characters, with individual personalities and yes, gifts. It also helps that the casting is spot on, allowing each vocal performance to truly bring every family member to life. John Leguizamo as Madrigal black sheep Bruno and Jessica Darrow as Mirabel’s older sister Luisa, a woman who can literally carry the world on her shoulders, are true standouts in a film filled to the brim with excellent turns.
The film’s soundtrack spans everything from joyful pop to the ‘90s “rock en español” movement and not one feels out of place. Manuel perfectly understands how music can both bolster and add to a narrative and these compositions are his best yet for Disney, all apologies to Moana. Nothing feels repetitive, with each of the 8 original songs capturing the variety of Colombian rhythms and instrumentation they are famous for, all while providing important exposition or emotional breakthroughs as needed. It’s hard to not be charmed by each and every track but “Columbia, Mi Encanta” featuring revered Columbian talent Carlos Vives and the folk-fantasy “Dos Oruguitas” sung by popular Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra, are two destined for a life outside the bounds of the film.
Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t contain a villain for the heroine (or anyone else) to vanquish. There are misunderstandings, misconceptions and dangerous obstacles, but there isn’t anyone intentionally out to create chaos or to destroy. While there is magic, it’s here as a metaphor and not malevolent in any way. Thankfully, there’s no romance to be found for Mirabel either; no boy (or girl) for her to moon over or distract her. Saving a village is enough to keep anyone busy–romance can surely wait. And though Mirabel’s journey is far from simple, it never takes her outside the bounds of her cherished Encanto.
This is a film about family, first and foremost. About love and the importance of communication and understanding. Each element–from the outstanding music to the colourful and lively animation–serves that simple but important message.
Disney’s Encanto is sure to have you tapping your toes as you leave the theatre, no matter your age, and will certainly act as a timely reminder to appreciate the love and beauty around you.