First of all, score one for Walt Disney Animation for putting out two releases in one year that celebrate different stories from different cultures! With the terrific Raya and the Last Dragon earlier this year, and now the charming Encanto, it’s refreshing to see that the House of Mouse has been more proactive in telling stories that aren’t just rooted in Western European fairy tales. I think Moana really opened the door for this, and as far as our site is concerned, we couldn’t be happier.
Now here’s the tricky part. It’s one thing to stick a label on something and pat yourself on the back for “being woke.” But in order to truly honor the culture you’re representing, you actually need to put in the effort to make it good. And I’m delighted to say, Encanto is very good. It’s a movie that not only honors Colombian culture, but more importantly, transcends it with a universality that applies to families of any culture. The animation is gorgeous. The characters are real. The music by Lin-Manuel Miranda is toe-tappingly catchy. And it is chock full of universal themes that are applicable to all families.
The story is relatively simple, but quite relatable. Mirabel Madrigal is part of a very special family of gifted individuals. When her Abuela was a young woman, she was the recipient of an amazing miracle which spawned an enchanted house (and nearby village), which gifted each member of her family with a special ability. All except for Mirabel herself, which, of course, makes her feel inadequate. In a concerning turn of events, their house begins to crack, and the family begins losing their gifts. As such, it’s up to Mirabel to uncover the mystery behind what’s causing Casita Madrigal to collapse, and see if she can save her home and her family on her own.
The strength of Encanto, much like Coco, comes from the idea of family. In fact, as far as Disney Animated Features are concerned, this is actually the most realistic family they’ve put to screen. Each character, from Mirabel herself, to her Abuela, and her sisters Luisa and Isabela are dealing with real emotions that people feel all the time. And the issues they have, from their insecurities to their exhaustion from putting up facades, are so easy to identify with. No family is perfect, whether they have powers or not. And the movie’s touching way of tackling this theme, as well as the theme of accepting yourself for everything you are, are sure to bring tears of relatability to everyone’s eyes.
Mirabel as a character is incredibly likeable. Voiced by Brooklyn Nine-Nine alum, Stephanie Beatriz, there’s a fire and spunk to Beatriz’s vocal performance, but also heavy helpings of pathos in every delivery. Beatriz has a song midway through the movie, called “Waiting on a Miracle,” which exudes sympathy and internal conflict for her situation, that immediately makes you want to leap into the screen and hug her. But she’s not alone. Doom Patrol‘s Diane Guerrero and Jessica Darrow, who voice Madrigal sisters Isabela and Luisa also turn in terrific performances. Who knew Crazy Jane would have such a lovely singing voice. And Darrow’s rapping skills in her catchy number “Surface Pressure” are worthy of a Hamilton stage. But by far, one of the most touching performances in the film belongs to John Leguizamo’s Tio Bruno. Bruno is a complex character who shares a lot in common with Mirabel, but possesses a surprisingly huge heart. It’s a funny, quirky, and heartfelt performance from Leguizamo, and a character you instantly like (even though you’re not supposed to talk about him).
The original story has to be praised as well. I’m loving the idea of Disney coming up with these original tales, from Zootopia to Raya, and the creativity behind Encanto‘s narrative is simply magical. While we’ve touched on the story’s heart, the originality behind the magical house, the magical candle, and the personal histories of some of these characters (there’s a particularly effective scene set to music near the end) is surprisingly refreshing, mature, and imaginative. I appears it took six individuals to come up with this original tale, including directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, and Miranda as well, and it shows. It’s the right way to create your own original mythology, and that’s something that needs to be commended.
Speaking of Miranda, the music he’s crafted for the film is terrific. Not only is each song completely catchy and memorable, but the way he blends and interweaves reprises of them all together at times (a gift he’s demonstrated in most of his Broadway shows) showcases how he’s truly the master of his craft, commanding beats and rhythms like the genius composer/writer he is. My particular favorites to look out for are the aforementioned “Surface Pressure,” “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” and “Dos Oruguitas.” The only issue with the music is that the entire soundtrack is so good, that, unfortunately, there is no real single stand-out song or epic musical moment in the film that separates it from any of the other numbers. And that’s a little underwhelming.
What do I mean by that? Well when we look back at some of the greatest Disney animated moments in history, many boil down to signature musical moments. Lion King has “Circle of Life” or “Hakkuna Matata.” Frozen obviously has “Let it Go.” Moana has “How Far I’ll Go.” Encanto, unfortunately doesn’t have that generation defining song that folks will instantly associate it with. It has a lot of excellent music, but it’s something of a “jack of all trades” situation, where everything is good, but no one specific iconic song stands out. And that’s a bit of a shame coming from Miranda, who wrote the immediately iconic “How Far I’ll Go.” Even when you think of Hamilton, “My Shot” or the title track “Hamilton” immediately come to mind. As such, in some ways, as good as the soundtrack is, Encanto’s music falls somewhere in between Miranda’s iconic work on Moana and his lesser known work for Vivo (though quite significantly better than the Vivo music).
And unfortunately, the music issue is something of a microcosm for Encanto‘s biggest issue. Noticed I called it “very good” but never once said “great”? And that’s because it’s not a particularly ambitious movie. It’s funny without being hilarious. It’s touching without being powerful. It’s very good, without really standing out. It’s rather complacent being “very good,” and doesn’t really challenge you or break new ground for Walt Disney Animation. And part of that is because of how conveniently all conflict is resolved in the film. There are two really important arcs in the film: one for Mirabel and the other for another character (I don’t want to spoil who). And While Mirabel’s arc is fleshed out and earned, the second character’s arc is resolved basically overnight. Then everything ends happily.
Now I’m not saying every film needs to be super complex or groundbreaking. But I would be hard pressed to see Encanto persisting in popularity as much as Frozen or Moana have. It’s completely lovely, and absolutely pleasant, but I don’t think it leaves as much of an epic impact as some of the other films in Disney Animation’s canon, because it doesn’t challenge its characters or audience the way a movie like Zootopia does. There’s nothing wrong with it, but against competition from films like the completely amazing, unique, and hilarious The Mitchells Vs. The Machines from earlier this year, I don’t see Encanto winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this coming year’s Academy Awards (though a nomination is probably in its future).
That being said, Encanto is still a perfectly pleasant movie. With really lovely themes, catchy music, an imaginative original story, a tremendous heart, and an incredibly realistic, relatable family at its center, it proves itself as a charming entry and a worthy inclusion to the Walt Disney Feature Animation canon. And most importantly, it further represents a fantastic step in the right direction that is Disney’s path to bringing diverse stories and new multi-cultural voices to the big screen. Simply put, it’s pretty magical.
Overall Score: B+