Review: “Encanto”

Encanto” doesn’t see its heroine leave home on some grand quest. It doesn’t have a villain, or an action-packed climax. The 60th feature film from Walt Disney Animation is one of its most intimate, rarely leaving the area surrounding the sprawling, magical Colombian home of the Madrigal family, and barely interacting with any characters outside of it. But while the story may be small in scale and scope, it’s rich in theme, particularly in the ways it explores generational trauma and the disappointment that goes with feeling like you aren’t special or don’t have a purpose.

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) in “Encanto”

Directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard from a screenplay by Bush and Charise Castro Smith, “Encanto” centers around three generations of the Madrigal family. While escaping civil war in their hometown, Alma’s husband Pedro was killed, but she and her three infant children are saved by an enchanted candle that builds them a beautiful home to live in and, when they come of age, bestows a special gift upon each child. Now those children have children, many of whom have come of age and received gifts of their own, special powers that range from Luisa’s super strength to Isabela’s perfection and ability to make flowers bloom wherever she goes. The family uses these powers to help the surrounding town to thrive. But when Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) came of age, she became the first person in the family to not receive a gift, and years later, she over-compensates in almost everything she does trying to prove her worth to her family, particularly Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botello). When Mirabel discovers evidence that the magic may be fading, she embarks on a journey to save her family.

Despite the elements of magical realism that run through “Encanto,” its themes are universal. Hints are dropped throughout the film as to the real cause of the magic fading—Luisa needs a break from using her strength all the time, and Mirabel’s uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), whose gift allows him to see the future but was misunderstood by the family, causing him to leave them years ago—but it’s toward the end where all the unspoken feelings of resentment between Alma and Mirabel come out into the open where the film really hits its stride. The pressure to be great, the wondering of what your life might have been, the constant striving for perfection, expecting too much of others and of yourself, and the way these pressures are passed down through families: “Encanto” explores all of that in as few words as possible, relying primarily on the character animation and vocal performances, a beautiful flashback sequence through which Alma recounts her past, and the music.

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) in “Encanto”

Let’s talk a bit about each of those things. The story “Encanto” tells may be universal, but it remains steeped in Colombian culture, from the costumes to the environments. The character designs impressively encompass a wide variety of skin tones, from light to dark to in between, hair styles and textures, and body types, all just within the Madrigal family, and it’s a nice way to showcase the country’s diversity. Beatriz wonderfully embodies Mirabel, conveying all her eagerness but also her frustration and sadness in her voice. And “Encanto” is a musical, featuring a score by Germaine Frano and a bevy of catchy songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Few of the songs immediately caught my ear the way past Disney musicals typically do (with the exception of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which I will be humming for the rest of the week), and not all of them felt like they were appropriately used within the story. For example, Mirabel sings “The Family Madrigal” at the start of the film to deliver information about each family member to the audience, while the song that Luisa sings about the pressure she’s feeling, “Surface Pressure,” while good, doesn’t feel entirely necessary. But the songs and score are still lovely to listen to, making use of traditional rhythms and instruments while integrating the raps and wordplay that are Miranda’s signature.

“Encanto” is beautiful, colorful, magical, funny, and emotional. Its world may be small, but it is built out to incredible detail, from the food the family eats to the way their house moves and interacts in time with its inhabitants. And every supporting player, regardless of how much screen time they receive, has a distinct personality that makes them come alive. Some may find it easy to dismiss thanks to its lack of a villain or discernible conflict to propel the story forward, and all the elements don’t quite come together perfectly. But in terms of family conflict, “Encanto” delivers a story that anyone ought to be able to identify with in some way, regardless of their age or where they are in life.

“Encanto” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 99 minutes. Rated PG.

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