Review: Disney Animation Delivers a Warm and Worthy Family Story in Encanto
Full of life, color and soaring music courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Disney’s latest animation celebration, Encanto, tells the story of the Madrigal family. They live in a magical house in the mountains of Colombia, in the hidden village of Encanto, where everyone in the town benefits from the magic that emanates from the family’s home. In fact, the magic has additionally blessed every member of the Madrigal family with unique gifts (more like super powers), ranging from super strength and enhanced hearing to being able to communicate with animals, control the weather, and the ability to heal. Even the house itself seems alive and responsive to the family’s needs.
The powers are assigned to each child at a certain age in a special ceremony—every child, that is, except Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz of In the Heights and “Brooklyn 99″), who is probably the kindest and most selfless member of the family. But because she has no gift, she feels like something less-than in her family, and her confidence level plummets the older she gets. Her sweet grandmother Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) considers her the rock-solid center of the family and a great organizer, mediator, and leader to the entirety of Encanto, but that’s not enough for Mirabel. But soon, the girl begins to have visions of the house itself falling apart and losing its connection to whatever power is giving everyone their gifts. And naturally, because she has no powers, no one believes her, which of course makes her doubt herself as well.
Directed by Byron Howard (Zootopia, Tangled) and Jared Bush (co-director Zootopia), and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith, Encanto certainly stands out among the recent crop of Disney Animation Studios’ work (and not just because it features an all-Latino cast—unless you include Alan Tudyk, who voices a toucan). Miranda’s songs aren’t just pop songs wedged into the movie; they are full-fledged show tunes that help tell and enhance the story being told (far more so than his music did in Moana), and in some cases, they absolutely elevate the proceedings. Plus, there’s actual, intricate choreography on display here that almost looks like the animators motion-captured dancers; I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen anything quite that detailed as far as dance in animation is concerned.
I love the interactions Mirabel has with her sisters, especially exchanges with Jessica Darrow’s super-strong Luisa. But the film goes from good to great late in the game with the introduction of Mirabel’s Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who either left the family or was banished after an incident that almost destroyed their home. Mirabel figures out where he’s hiding and suspects that he may have some idea what her visions (which are quickly becoming reality, as people and the house seem to be losing their gifts) might mean. He’s nervous about revealing himself to the rest of the family again because he’s not sure what will happen, and it’s at this point that the true message of Encanto reveals itself to be about confidence and accepting one’s own self-worth and specialness even in a place where being special has a different meaning. It’s a worthy, if somewhat overly simplistic and vague, lesson that all people should take to heart.
What the film really has going for it are beautifully realized characters who are an absolute joy to spend time with. The singing and dancing are a lovely bonus and only serve to improve upon what’s already there. In some cases, the music helps smooth over some of the movie’s less interesting moments. Even still, the entertainment value of Encanto is without question thanks to a combination of the film’s setting in an idealistic society and the insertion of a healthy amount of cynicism about what a place would be like where some small portion of the population was “better” than the rest. And the combination of Beatriz and Leguizamo is unstoppable; I just wish it didn’t take as long to finally bring their characters together. Ultimately, it’s a minor complaint, and the fact that the film looks so damn impressive goes a long way toward keeping our eyes occupied until the character development finally kicks in. Encanto is a worthy and enjoyable experience, well worth your own journey to the big screen to see it.
Encanto is now playing in select theaters.
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