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Review: Encanto

November 24, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Encanto is Disney’s 60th animated feature, and it’s a bright and colourful film that feels like somewhat of a return to the studio’s musical roots, while also pushing things forward in terms of cultural representation by setting its story in Colombia.

While this is technically not Disney’s first film to be set in South America (those honours actually go to the studio’s 1942 and 1945 anthology films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros), the animated Colombia where Encanto unfolds feels authentically and respectfully realized onscreen, with the animators paying tribute to the country’s people and culture.

The Colombian jungle also provides a vibrant backdrop for the story itself, which actually plays out as a somewhat pared back family drama centred around Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), the one member of the magical Madrigal family who hasn’t been blessed with any special powers.

Mirabel’s oldest sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is considered the “perfect” one who can literally make flowers bloom, middle sibling Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has super strength that allows her to literally carry the family’s burdens on her shoulders, and their mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal any ailment with her food. You get the idea. They all live together in an enchanted casita that has its own magical powers, with floorboards and shutters that come alive and move independently. Everyone in the family has been given a gift, provided to them by a magic candle, with their own special door in the house that opens up into a magical room.

Everyone accept for Mirabel. The story unfolds around a ceremony to bestow her young cousin Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) with his gift and door, bringing back painful memories of her own ceremony when the door wouldn’t open. When Mirablel notices the magic in the house starting to fade, and no one in the family wants to listen, she becomes the only one who can save it. This includes enlisting the help of the film’s best and most interesting character, Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who has been shunned by the family due to his disturbing visions of the future.

It’s an interesting twist on the outsider, black-sheep-of-the-family trope that directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush (who previously collaborated on Zootopia) use to tell an almost surprisingly small-scale story. Most of the action in Encanto is contained within the various passageways and magic rooms of the house. There is no real villain in the movie, and a lot of it feels like buildup for the characters going on a much bigger journey that never really happens.

While the choice to keep the action confined to almost a single location is somewhat interesting from a narrative perspective, the film actually feels a bit too contained at times, especially since the story still follows several predictable beats, and it’s buoyed along by a slightly generic message about accepting differences within a family. But Encanto still largely works as a simple but mostly effective story about navigating conflicts between relatives that is told with a good deal of energy, including a number of new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The musical numbers mainly serve to introduce the various family members, starting with the energetic and somewhat ear-wormy opening number “Family Madrigal” that allows Mirabel to rattle off all their gifts through Miranda’s wordplay. The songs are decent, if not the most memorable in a Disney film, and the musical numbers themselves are all presented in their own styles which makes them feel fresh and fun to watch.

For example, the song “Waiting On a Miracle” (an “I Want” song if there ever was one) is inventively staged with Mirabel moving through the frame as her family is frozen in time, while Luisa’s big number “What Else Can I Do?” embraces a more surrealistic style that recalls something out of the studio’s 1990s films like Aladdin or Hercules. But the film’s best and most impactful tune is “Dos Oruguitas,” the first full song that Miranda has written in Spanish, which plays over a dramatic flashback sequence in the last act that is the best thing in the movie.

The choice to present the song in Spanish without translation or subtitles is also an interesting one. The film is somewhat of an immigrant story at its heart, which is set up in the prologue involving Mirabel’s grandmother Abuela Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero), and the emotional payoff really comes over this sequence in the finale. It’s a touching end to a film that, despite a few minor shortcomings, manages to tell a culturally specific yet universal story about reconciliation and family, carried by a big heart and animation that is simply bursting with colour.

Encanto is now playing in theatres. Before the film is director Natalie Nourigat’s adorable new 2D short film Far From the Tree, a wordless story about a parent and baby raccoon. It’s lovely, and wonderful to see Disney going back to traditional animation, even if just for a short.

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