At its best, Disney can provoke wonder and excitement generated by unique ideas and stories filled with relatable characters. Encanto is the animation studio’s 60th feature, and it shows just how well time has not stopped the Mouse House from delivering solid hits. The magically-infused musical is a delight from start to end, with winning songs, vibrant animation, and strong vocal performances all the way around. Plus, while transporting audiences to a new world, this celebration of Latino culture can still rely on the foundations of family to best support itself.
Encanto focuses on the Madrigal family, who live in a magical casita in the mountains of Columbia. The various members each have special gifts, including super strength, shape-shifting, controlling the weather through emotions, and healing others through cooking. Only one member does not have a superpower, Mirabel (Stephani Beatriz), who feels like she’s constantly on the outside looking in. However, Mirabel does love her family, and when the magic seems to be in danger, she sets out on a quest to solve this mystery and stop whatever threat there may be.
Structure-wise, the most interesting thing about Encanto is how contained it feels. That’s not to say the film isn’t expansive enough, but given the type of story being told, one could see a version where Mirabel must travel far and wide to deal with whatever is endangering her family. This would also mean incorporating a clear villain, let alone other familiar Disney elements, such as a love interest for Mirabel. That’s not this film.
Coming from Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, rather than explore a vast world and incorporate a wide variety of characters like that animal-focused story, Encanto rarely leaves the casita. This is not a bad thing, as the nature of magic allows the family home to be as expansive and expressive as any number of Disney films. With Mirabel as our guide, we learn about her different relatives by exploring their various rooms that expand much wider than possible outside of a fantastical story. As a result, while not quite a claustrophobic thriller, it’s interesting to see how the film relies on making substantial stakes rather personal.
Not hurting at all is the incredible animation that captures the detail of the culture through the costuming and other designs, in addition to being a colorful blast of imagination. One sequence involves Mirabel dealing with her oldest sister, Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who can make flowers bloom everywhere. As the two engage in dialogue and song, the room opens up with all sorts of flower designs and colors appearing everywhere in a way that’s only achievable through animation. Other scenes find similar ways to feel enchanting and unique for the film.
I was also quite impressed with the vocal performances in the film. Relying on primarily Colombian and other South American performers, it’s once again a showcase for how animated movies can be at their best when the work is done to cast based on who is suitable for the role, as opposed to the biggest names available. With that in mind, Beatriz brings all that is needed for a terrific protagonist. She imbues Mirabel with a sense of humor, empathy, and quirks that have her standing strong with some of the other oddball lead characters in the wide world of Disney.
Also impressive is John Leguizamo as Bruno, the black sheep of the Madrigal family (they don’t talk about Bruno). While introduced through song as an outsider, once we finally meet the character, Leguizamo makes a great choice to underplay the character. He, too, has his own eccentricities as a character, but for someone who is essentially tortured by his specific gift, a lot is coming from the actor that shows Bruno as a person who has learned to cope with his situation over time.
As a musical, the performers deliver as needed as well. The film even has In the Heights’ Olga Merediz provide the singing voice for Abuela Alma, the figurehead for the Madrigal family. It makes plenty of sense since the music for this film was developed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been all over 2021. As far as the songs go, there’s certainly a nice poppy rhythm for all of them, with some standing out more than others. Compared to some of the best Disney musicals, having characters break out into song doesn’t always serve to progress the story. This would be more of an issue if the songs weren’t at least good to begin with.
With that in mind, the best musical moments tend to come from seeing the cast interacting. This is also a way of communicating the film’s focus on family. Even as a work of fantasy and magical realism, Encanto never loses sight of what it wants to say about the strength that comes from a family that works together and appreciates each other. Those bonds are tested, and new discoveries are made, but I appreciated how the film was more complex than simply having a villain that needed to be taken care of. Instead, the bickering allows for more fun and issues revolving around expectations and understanding that create compelling, emotional drama.
Encanto is a winner. It’s spirited, fun, and a visual treat. I enjoyed learning about these various characters and seeing how their powers are tested. The encouraging messages about family are also worthwhile and the kind of thing that makes films like this work for the holiday season. That’s not a new way of thinking for Disney, but this is a studio that continues to find ways to captivate an audience, regardless of whatever it feels it can rely on. This time around, the combination of magic and Columbian culture proved to be an animated feast fit for all.