There’s a little magic in all of us … almost all of us.
In a hidden village deep in the Colombian wilderness lives the Madrigal Family, a sprawling clan where everyone has a special gift. Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has incredible physical strength, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, Isabela (Diane Guerrero) can make flowers bloom wherever she goes. Only Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) has no powers, and so, of course, only she notices when the Casita, the magical, seemingly sentient house where they live, starts to crumble. Possibly it’s got something to do with family black sheep Bruno (John Leguizamo), who fled the household years ago? Or is it something to do with kind but stern family matriarch Alma (María Cecilia Botero) and the founding of the family itself?
Encanto is a really interesting film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In many ways, it’s of a type with what the Studio has been doing for decades now: magical musical adventures packed with fun characters, lush visuals, and catchy tunes (Lin-Manuel Miranda provides them this time), all wrapped around a positive message. However, Encanto differs in its cultural specificity. It’s a resolutely Colombian story, and every character, design choice, and even casting speaks to that, with the entire cast being either Colombian-descended or Hispanic. With its workaday magic and secluded South American setting, the story draws from the magical realism literary tradition in general, and specifically the 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. That’s a pretty highbrow reference for a kids’ flick.
But what’s really remarkable is the lack of a villain. Without giving the game away, the core problem in Encanto is not generated by a malicious wrongdoer out for power or wealth, but rather the much more subtle yet recognizable issue of a family stuck in its own rut and blind to its own problems. Really, the problem is being hidebound by tradition and a limited sense of identity — the family Madrigal have a very strong but inflexible idea of who they are as a whole and who everyone is within that whole and what their function is — any deviation from those ideas is an attack on the family and their place in the world.
Which makes Mirabel a great protagonist. She has no powers and so no function within the family. She’s loved, of course, but somewhat othered, and being something of an outsider gives her an angle on the proceedings that no one else has and empowers how to save the family from its own short-sightedness. That’s a nice touch; it would have been so easy to externalize the threat, and indeed there are hints that earlier drafts of the story did exactly that, but it’s so much more satisfying and daring to refute the easy path and deal with the notion that sometimes people are their own worst enemy, even when they’re acting with the best of intentions.
The whole thing is gorgeous, of course — this is Walt Disney Animation’s 60th feature film, and they’ve not lost a trick when it comes to crafting beautiful animation. If I had to single out any one element, it’s the house itself, a stunningly realized anthropomorphic creation full of life and color, but the whole thing really jumps off the screen. I do worry that we’ve settled into a particular “look” for humans in CGI cartoons, though, one that is becoming uniform across studios and production houses, and it’d be nice to see some artists use this most flexible of media to buck against that trend. In a format where you can do anything, it’s a bit disconcerting to see a homogenized dominant style emerging.
That’s not worth marking Encanto down for, though. Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, who previously gave us another left-of-field Disney animated feature, the race parable Zootopia (2016), have here given us a thoroughly charming and fun fantasy adventure, one well worth catching on the big screen if you get the chance.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson