‘Encanto’ Review: Disney’s Love Letter To Colombian Culture And Family

Michael Lee reviews Encanto, Disney's colorful musical telling a fantastical story based around Colombian culture.
User Rating: 9

Encanto marks a significant milestone for Walt Disney Studios Animation’s legacy and its push to bring more diversity to its titles. The beauty of their landmark 60th film is that it celebrates nearly everything Latin America, specifically Colombia, offers in more ways than one. While those cultural specificities will resonate with some, its story about family and the relationships they share will connect to a larger audience. And it becomes truly spectacular when it takes all of that can combines dazzling visuals and colorful music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The film centers on the Madrigal family who lives in an enchanted casita hidden in the mountains of Colombia. This house blesses each child with a special magical gift that they are to use to help improve their lives and the townspeople’s lives. Unfortunately, Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) is the only child within the family who is ordinary. Though frustrating to be the only Madrigal child without any magical powers, Mirabel helps everyone in whatever way possible. However, on the night that her cousin Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) is supposed to receive his gift, she discovers that the magic is in danger of disappearing. So, she takes it upon herself to solve the mystery that could save it.

While some of the Disney films of the past played with the idea of westernized magic where wizards use their wands to cast spells either to assist to hinder key characters, Encanto has a different approach. Here, it utilizes “magical realism” to ground the film. The concept of “magical realism” sees magic tied to emotions that are steeped in culture. This way, it doesn’t feel the least bit contrived. Instead, there is something genuine to it. Even the title itself translates to enchanted. Each Madrigal child has a responsibility to use their powers to help the town. And the community accepts magic as a part of everyday life. Of course, the town children are amazed by the wonders of the magic and treat the Madrigals as if they were celebrities.

Mirabel’s mother, Julieta Madrigal (Angie Cepeda), has the power to heal through the meals she cooks. But, like any mother, she sees Mirabel as her daughter, not the unfortunate child who did not receive a blessing. However, because the casita denied Mirabel her magical birthright, Mirabel feels like an outcast. It also doesn’t help that her sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is the family’s golden child who can make flowers bloom instantly. Then there’s the middle sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow), a rock-solid dependable kid who uses her super-strength to help lift and move heavy objects. And Mirabel’s father, Agustín (Wilmer Valderrama), is a bit accident-prone, making him the perfect fit for Julieta.

As for Mirabel’s tia, tio, and cousins, there’s the “overly emotional” Tía Pepa (Carolina Gaitán), who controls the weather. Her husband Felix (Mauro Castillo) is the life of the party and the only one who can calm Pepa. As for Mirabel’s cousins, there’s the shy animal whisperer Antonio, the mischievous shape-shifting Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), and Dolores (Adassa), whose enhanced hearing allows her to know the dirt on everyone. Finally, the reclusively prophetic Tio Bruno (John Leguizamo) has visions of the future, which may or may not be the root of some family and town drama.

And the entire Madrigal family lives in a beautiful and magical non-speaking casita – the film’s version of the Disney castle – that’s hidden in the mountains of Colombia. The tragic origins of the home tie back to when Abuelo Pedro sacrificed himself to save his family from a gang of marauders. And in true Disney fashion, a luminous miracle rose from that to provide shelter and protection for the Madrigals. Additionally, the home blesses the Madrigal child with a magical gift. For such a powerful character, it has quite a fun personality akin to a family pet and often helps bring sandals, uses tiles to pour coffee, makes music with the floors, drawers, and doors, and provides emotional support to the Madrigals.

But the casita’s magic isn’t just confined to one thing. It’s the kind of home that grows along with the family. Literally. Each new door presented to a child opens to an entirely new world that reflects their magic and personality. For Antonio, it’s a jungle where he cohabitates with various jungle animals of all shapes and sizes. Luisa’s room is adorned with pretty flowers that are just too perfect. Because of how the casita expands its inside, it feels like an entire world has yet to be explored. And it makes the mystery of the disappearing magic-less isolating since most of the film takes place within the Madrigal home.

Though Encanto centers on this large extended family, much of the story centers on the ordinary Mirabel. Her lack of powers, warm personality, and the familial relationships that she shares allow audiences to connect to the character. And the cultural specificities that are woven into the fabric of the visual aesthetics and language of the script adds layers of LatinX, specifically Colombian, representation.

Encanto is a celebration of the Latin-America, specifically the Colombian culture. It shows in the attention to the details when it comes to the architectural designs of the casita, the embroidery, the delicious arepas, and the luscious green mountainous landscapes. It’s a kind of authenticity because of the contributions of the Colombian Cultural Story trust. Additionally, the cast is mainly comprised, not entirely, of Colombian and Afro-Latino heritage, which helps make it stay true to the film’s characters and its setting.

And Lin-Manuel Miranda, Disney’s muse, offers eight songs that serve as another one of Encanto’s storytelling devices. Sampling from various genres like Reggeaton, Salsa, and Cumbia, the rhythms and sounds define all of the emotions and tones of the film. “The Madrigal Family” opening number is that upbeat and hip tune that invites us into the home and introduces audiences to each member. Some of the other songs like “We Don’ Talk About Bruno,” “Surface Pressure,” and “What Else Can I Do” explore the family dynamics. But it’s “Dos Oruguitas,” which is sung entirely in Spanish, that strikes an emotional chord as it visualizes the one great tragedy that brought magic, that Abuela Alma is so protective of, to life. So if Miranda’s Moana soundtrack has been on constant rotation for these past few years, get ready for Encanto to bust through your speakers or headphones.

If the strong character arcs and magic tied to emotion set against the backdrop of a fantastical but very tangible world feels familiar, it has a lot to do with Jared Bush and Bryon Howard’s direction. They bring a wealth of experience helping these projects that embraces emotion, individuality, and strength. But Charise Castro-Smith brings in a degree of authenticity that Bush and Howard don’t have. She adds Latin-American cultural nuance, knowledge of magical realism, and the female perspective to help everything stay true to the characters and spirit of everything audiences see and hear.

And Stephanie Beatriz shines as Mirabel. While previous roles have seen the actress playing strong and confident characters, Encanto offers to show us her versatility. She joins a long line of Disney heroines who subvert gender roles by being a strong female lead protagonist that fits the current times. She is fearless, intelligent, and spirited, and not afraid to wear her emotions on her sleeve. Though her lack of a magical blessing makes her feel more like an outcast within her own family, it allows the character to stand out and be more of an individual but still be a part of something as magical as a family.

Encanto makes up for the lack of a traditional villain by inserting familial tension between Mirabel and Abuela Alma as a primary source of conflict. Mirabel’s desire to help or at least feel useful in the family is constantly undermined by Alma. She professes that the family rite of passage or dates must go perfectly, and therefore it be best if the non-powered child stays out of the way.

And the larger mystery of why the family magic is disappearing keeps things fully engaging without delving into too many wacky cliches. Even the goofy animal sidekicks aren’t as much of a presence as some of the other films. But there is still some great meta-comedy to make everything fun. And the colorful and visually striking animated musical numbers provide some of those missing elements.

Though there are a lot of familiar elements from the animated musical that comfortably resides in Encanto, what makes it sing is that it comes alive through a range of representation. It is a chance for the LatinX and Latine communities to see themselves in the characters portrayed on screen. To have their stories told, voices heard, and arts celebrate leaves an incredible impact on feeling seen. And there is a massive difference when a person can see themselves in these characters honestly and positively portrayed.

Encanto opens in theaters on November 24, 2021

Written by
Michael Lee has covered the film industry for over the past decade for sites like Geeks of Doom and That’s It LA. He looks forward to all kinds of films of all sizes whether it's the commercial blockbusters or small independent fare. But what he is most interested in is pushing for more diversity and representation, whether it is on screen, behind the camera, or at the top of a studio office.

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