THE STORY – The Madrigals are an extraordinary family who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia in a charmed place called the Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift — every child except Mirabel. However, she soon may be the Madrigals last hope when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is now in danger.
THE CAST – Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda & Wilmer Valderrama
THE TEAM – Jared Bush (Director/Writer), Byron Howard (Director) & Charise Castro Smith (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
By Zoe Rose Bryant
After 60 feature films, you would start to think that the Walt Disney Animation Studios “formula” might slightly lose its luster. And over the years, that’s certainly been the case – before the Disney Renaissance (which lasted from 1989-1999 and featured films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Lion King”), the studio was on the risk of financial ruin. Even then, this iconic period of prosperity couldn’t last forever, as it was followed by what many call “Disney’s Second Dark Age,” comprised of a string of bombs such as “Treasure Planet” and “Home on the Range.” Now, for the last decade, the studio has found itself on the uptick yet again, starting with the release of “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009 and continuing with the staggering success of “Frozen” “Zootopia,” and “Moana.” While many waits to see if – or rather, when – the studio will stumble once more, it absolutely won’t be with this year’s “Encanto,” one of the most aesthetically arresting and epically emotional animated features of the year, complete with a cast of colorful and captivating characters who are sure to become new fan favorites.
As introduced in the invigorating opening number “The Family Madrigal,” “Encanto” follows this tight-knit clan who live in an enchanted enclave in the mountains of Colombia, giving back to their community thanks to their magical gifts that have been passed down ever since Abuela Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) and the late Abuelo Madrigal made the trek to this town many years ago. Abuela’s daughters, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) and Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can control the weather and heal others with her cooking, respectively. In contrast, Julieta’s own daughters are blessed as well, with the idealized Isabela (Diane Guerrero) able to make flowers bloom wherever she wishes and the lively Luisa (Jessica Darrow) possessing superhuman strength. However, there is one exception amongst the “magical Madrigals” – Julieta’s other daughter, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who sadly was not given a gift when she came of age. And yet, when it’s revealed that the Madrigal family’s magic is under threat and Mirabel may be the secret to saving it, she has to summon the skills to let her self-doubt dissipate and find a way to protect their powers before it’s too late.
It’s easy to come down on Disney and compare their animated features to one another as “carbon copies” simply set in new locales (each with plucky female protagonists, some sort of familial strife, a third act “twist” villain, etc.), but, especially in recent years, they’ve done their best to differentiate these fantastical tales by prioritizing new cultural perspectives, and “Encanto” is no different. Much like how “Moana” brought us our first Polynesian Disney Princess and “Raya and the Last Dragon” thrust Southeast Asian leads into the spotlight, “Encanto” serves as reverential – and rousingly refreshing – representation for the Afro-Latinx community. And, after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other major musical this year, “In the Heights,” faced critiques of colorism, those wrongs have been righted here, with the whole range of the community depicted in fetching fashion. There’s a clear love for this culture and these customs that flows throughout “Encanto,” and even if you come from another background, it’s near-impossible not to be swept up by the sincerity and spirited sentiment on display. While the story is rooted in this cultural specificity, it accepts audiences from around the world instead of alienating them, honoring its heritage while welcoming everyone into this wonder.
It’s similarly sensational how well “Encanto” continually subverts our expectations with its surprising script, which moves beyond simple “the thing that makes you special is the fact that you’re not special” messaging to offer a more multidimensional analysis of the specific ways Mirabel contributes to her family even without magic – and, simultaneously how the magic can at times be too much for each member of the Madrigals. Given that this is quite a common theme that can be found in many a “kids’ movie” (there’s usually at least one a year), the profound final project really shows how hard screenwriters Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith worked to dig deeper and differentiate “Encanto” from pictures of the past, and especially those from this same studio. Likewise, it’s inevitable that individuals in families the world over will relate to the film’s stark – but stirring – study of what it means to be a “black sheep” and experience those emotions of dismay, disappointment, and dejection in regards to not entirely “fitting in.” It’s an identity many know all too well, but rather than adding to the anguish they feel, “Encanto” embraces these so-called “outcasts” and shows them that they do have value and they do bring honor to their loved ones.
A constantly engaging voice cast also enlivens the proceedings considerably, led by the beaming Stephanie Beatriz, who imbues Mirabel with such spunky intensity and imagination, giving many viewers a vivacious new Latina role model to revere. In a complete 180 from the deadpan Detective Rosa Diaz on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Beatriz is a lively ray of light in this role, brilliantly delivering when her big dramatic beats arrive but never forgetting the energy and enthusiasm that is essential to Mirabel’s personality. There’s not a weak link in the ensemble. Still, the standout behind Beatriz would have to be the jubilant John Leguizamo as Mirabel’s estranged and eccentric uncle Bruno, who has thrilling ties to the story’s central mystery (that shan’t be spoiled here) or Botero as the adamant Abuela Madrigal, whose caustic commitment to “tradition” makes her an antagonist-of-sorts in this adventure – at least, until the film’s resonant resolution. Guerrero also shines as Mirabel’s impossibly perfect sister, Isabela, while Jessica Darrow is an undeniable delight as the “strongest” sibling – literally and figuratively – Luisa.
Throughout, the soundtrack is a supreme success. Even if there isn’t one track that stands above the rest a la “Frozen’s” “Let It Go” or “Moana’s” “How Far I’ll Go,” there are simply no skips to be found here, with the visually vibrant animation accompanying each musical number proving to be a stunning spectacle. “The Family Madrigal” is a fantastically fun way to open the film and introduce audiences to this original world, but the superbly showy “Surface Pressure” (showcasing the burdens Luisa has to bear for the family in flamboyant fashion) and jauntily jazzy “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” make a massive impact as well. However, it’s in the scene spotlighting the mightily moving “Dos Oruguitas” where “Encanto” wholly morphs into something truly special – a scene solely set to this (all-Spanish) song as we witness the woes of the Madrigal family’s past, providing us with a new perspective on everything that’s come before. Say what you will about the “familiarity of the Disney formula,” but “Dos Oruguitas” demonstrates that the studio still has that special spark, reducing tons of viewers to tears in one of the most meaningful moments in an animated feature since the opening of Pixar’s “Up.” This is the moment where “Encanto” goes from being a good film to a great one, and it tenderly ties up every touching thematic thread this thoughtful tale explored, leaving us with not just one of the most affecting animated films of the year but one of the most deeply felt films period.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The film is visually vibrant, extraordinarily emotional, and ultimately oh so uplifting, showing the Disney “formula” at its strongest. It’s a refreshing and reverential representation for the Afro-Latinx community, complete with a cast full of new colorful, and captivating characters to follow.
THE BAD – It hits a few familiar narrative beats, and there isn’t a sole standout song on the soundtrack a la “Let It Go” or even “How Far I’ll Go,” but the music is largely moving and mesmerizing nonetheless.