Disney’s Encanto is everything a holiday film should be: beautiful, joyful, musical, family-friendly, and heartwarming. If it sounds like I’m saying it is pretty much perfect, I am. And for me, this is a rare assessment.
I gravitate towards animation, sci-fi, and fantasy, and though there has been a deluge of these types of films hitting the screens and streaming services, nearly all the films I’ve seen in recent years have fallen down in one area or other: story, score, animation, or voice casting (which can ruin a film).
But Encanto, Disney’s 60th animated feature, does not disappoint in any way. It has it all: an engaging story, impeccable voice casting, exquisite animation, outstanding production design, and, as a bonus, it has lovely, singable, original songs.
Encanto is the story of Mirabel, an ordinary girl in a family of extraordinary people, the Madrigals, who are each blessed at the age of five with a magical gift. One has super strength, the other has extraordinary hearing, another can shape-shift. Even the house is magical. And the family uses their powers for good, so to speak, caring for the citizens of the town in Columbia that has sprung up around them. But Mirabel never got a magical gift, so she is always looking for a way to prove her worth to the family, and to herself. When she discovers the family and their home is in danger, she decides she will be the one to save them.
Mirabel (voiced perfectly by Stephanie Beatriz) is a character who will resonate strongly with practically everyone. Who has not found themselves questioning their worth or their role in a family or family-like group? Mirabel is all of us who were not smarter, faster, funnier, or cuter, than our siblings or cousins or fill-in-the-blank relative. Screenwriters Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush draw an endearing and realistic portrait of Mirabel, her emotions, and her struggles, which is what makes her so relatable. Far from being resentful of her family, Mirabel’s love for them is strong and unwavering. This is illustrated in a particularly poignant scene when Mirabel makes a choice to stand by a family member even though doing so causes her great personal pain.
Though the movie keeps you laughing, the themes of family and sacrifice permeate all aspects of the plot. Mirabel’s desire for extraordinary powers is not for her own glory, but instead, she wants to serve her family and community. And, again, to belong, like the others. This attitude on the part of this Disney heroine is a welcome relief from the too-often repeated refrain that is basically “Get me out of here so I can find people who get me!” Mirabel isn’t looking for happiness somewhere else, nor is she waiting for some handsome lad to take her away from it all. Like the latest line of Disney princesses, romance is not on her menu for now. No, Mirabel is written as a tough, smart young woman who is determined to find her own answers.
Familial love and loyalty is a strong thread throughout Encanto, but don’t expect it to be all hearts and flowers. Both sides of that coin are examined, and the questions of how tight an embrace can be before it is suffocating, as well as the importance of caring for yourself, are both explored. Though all of Mirabel’s family, except those who married into the family, are magical, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own problems, and one by one, Castro Smith and Bush introduce us to these very three-dimensional beings, each navigating their magical world in their own careful way.
It is a big family, so I won’t go into the details of each and every one, but I do have to mention that the family’s Abuela Alma is one of the most interesting and realistically written characters. Voiced faultlessly by María Cecilia Botero, she was a wonderfully accurate representation of family matriarchs, carrying the weight of the reputation of the family on solitary shoulders, trying to keep the family together at all costs.
The rest of the characters and cast are all a blast to watch and listen to, whether speaking or singing. Each character is drawn in a charmingly whimsical manner by the character designers, each speaking, moving, and singing in their own unique way that absolutely works for the character. I do need to mention that the eyes are getting a tad too big, animators. But that is really nit-picking, and other than that, I have no real complaints.
I can’t go any further without talking about the music. The music, my God, the music. Okay, this is no lie. The minute I got in the car after the I saw the movie, I tried to find the soundtrack on Spotify. Much to my disappointment, it hadn’t been released yet. I waited patiently until it dropped a few days later and then I listened to it and I listened to it again. I’m humming the songs as I type this review. The songs, the score, all of it, is marvelous.
Germain Franco’s score envelops you and goes straight to your heart and to your hips. I mean it really makes you want to move. I want to say it transports you to Columbia and fills you with joy, which I know sounds overly effusive, but what can I say? It is that good and like nothing you’ve heard coming out of this studio, ever.
(Quick aside: The Emperor’s New Groove is one of the most underrated Disney animated films ever. And I only bring it up because it was supposed to be a musical, but, during a shift in studio power, the decision was made to scrap that idea. However, Sting had written the music and it had been recorded, so they released the soundtrack, and it is truly one of the best Disney soundtrack albums. I only bring it up because it was unique and not very Disney-esque, so very similar to Encanto’s soundtrack in that way.)
Lin-Manuel Miranda made it a point to thoroughly study Columbian music before tackling Encanto. He has spoken about being familiar with the rhythms but needing to learn about the unique Columbian instrumentation and orchestration. Though the songs are reminiscent of some of the best work by Disney composer greats, they have a recognizable Columbian sound and rhythm. During the course of writing eight songs for the film, Miranda says he fell in love with Columbian music and culture, and it shows. Marvelously singable, they will be popping up in musical auditions within a week of the film’s release. A favorite is hard to choose but both the film’s lively opening, “The Family Madrigal”, is one. “Surface Pressure”, sung in an impressive alto by Jessica Darrow, who voices super-strong Luisa, is the other, especially when combined with the wild visuals. But “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” will have you in stitches, guaranteed.
Of course, the animation is top-notch. These days, it practically goes without saying. But there is something extraordinary about the production design on Encanto. The art design and visual effects teams created something both realistic and magical. The way the characters moved, the way the clothing moved, it was all on another level. There is a scene when Mirabel’s Aunt Pepa and Uncle Félix are dancing, and it is unbelievable how good it looks. The lighting, the texture of their skin and clothes, are all terrifically lifelike, yet fanciful at the same time. The whole film is like that. It just makes you want to jump through the screen and live in this sumptuous environment.
Encanto will have audiences laughing and, at times, crying (yup, bring tissues) and I can guarantee you will leave the theater dancing and singing as well. I can’t think of a better way to kick off the holiday season than seeing this truly enchanting (I had to) film.
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto” tells the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift from super strength to the power to heal—every child except one, Mirabel (voice of Stephanie Beatriz). But when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is in danger, Mirabel decides that she, the only ordinary Madrigal, might just be her exceptional family’s last hope. Releasing on Nov. 24, 2021, the film is directed by Jared Bush (co-director “Zootopia”) and Byron Howard (“Zootopia,” “Tangled”), co-directed by Charise Castro Smith (writer “The Death of Eva Sofia Valdez”), and produced by Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer; the screenplay is by Castro Smith and Bush. “Encanto” features original songs by Emmy®, GRAMMY® and Tony Award® winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton,” “Moana”); Germaine Franco (“Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” “Little,” “Tag”) composed the original score.