Review of “Encanto”

Family was the focus of my opening last week and it will be this week. There is a family in South Carolina that’s been in the news lately. I’m not going to get into specifics, but they come from a long line of powerful lawyers that have run a particular county for nearly a century. Recently, this family has come under scrutiny for unethical practices and drug abuse. There are also at least four deaths in recent years perhaps tied to the family. These people have been viewed as blessed and a pillar of the community, but under the surface, cracks have been getting bigger and bigger for years. The family in Disney’s “Encanto” is viewed by its community as gifted, strong, and stable, but under the surface, the cracks are beginning to form.

The Madrigal family started with tragedy. Running from bandits raiding their village in Colombia, Alma Madrigal (voiced by Maria Cecilla Botero), her triplet babies and her husband Pedro, are crossing a river with other residents when the bandits catch up. Pedro pleads for everyone’s life but is killed. Alma, clutching her three children, is so overcome with grief, the candle she uses to light her way becomes enchanted, raising mountains between the villagers and bandits. The candle also produces a magical house for Alma and her children called Casita. As Alma’s family grows with her grandchildren, each child is given a gift by the candle when they turn 5 or 6. They approach a glowing door and touch the doorknob. It is then they are imbued with a gift, or ability. Isabela (voiced by Diane Guerrero) can produce flowers out if thin air. Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow) possesses superhuman strength. All of Alma’s children and grandchildren have their unique gift…except Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz). When she touched the doorknob, the glow faded away and the door disappeared. The night her nephew Antonio (voiced by Ravi-Cabot Conyers) receives the gift of communicating with animals, Mirabel sees cracks forming in the walls of their magical house and the enchanted candle’s flame dimming. The magic is fading and taking everyone’s gift with it. Mirabel makes it her mission to discover a reason for the weakening magic and find a way to stop it to protect her family.

“Encanto” is the kind of family friendly animated film that Disney has done best for decades. From “Snow White” to “Cinderella” to “Bambi,” Disney has known how to turn family drama into family entertainment. “Encanto” may be more sophisticated animation and diverse in its representation, but the formula is unchanged: Introduce a family unit (traditional or otherwise), present an obstacle or danger, and a solution uncovered by a family member, usually the least likely one, while learning a lesson. Along the way, we hear very festive and uplifting songs about the Madrigal family, enjoy some laughs as we watch family members use their gifts and learn how they use their abilities to benefit the villagers that live around the magical house. It isn’t groundbreaking storytelling, but “Encanto’s” heart, humor and enthusiasm make this familiar story a joy to watch.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote all the original songs in the movie. His gift of lyrical playfulness is on full display. Most songs lay out the feelings and fears of the character, even those they are too afraid to express. Some songs are joyous exclamations of living in the magical Madrigal family. They focus on the love each member has for each other (sometimes hiding the petty jealousy or envy of another’s gift), and how they share that love and their gifts with the surrounding village. Even the songs that appear dark in their subject, “Surface Pressure” sung by the strong Luisa and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” sung by most of the cast, feel happy and sometimes goofy in their expressions of fear and doubt. Miranda has a knack for taking serious subjects and making them more palatable and toe tappable.

The film is a bright canvas of vibrant colors. While not overwhelming, “Encanto” fills the eye with dazzling images of lush flowers and murals painted on the walls. There is the house, or casita, itself, made of tiles and what appears to be adobe walls with planters spilling over with greenery. The house is alive, sometimes speaking in squeaks of shutters opening and closing or tiles tapping on the floor. There is color and movement everywhere in casita. It is a house filled with both magic and love.

Despite all the color, joy, and peppy tunes, “Encanto” has an underlying tension exposed slowly. From the first cracks in the walls that magically disappear to the fate of casita, “Encanto” shows us how the family that appears perfect from the outside can have tensions and shortcomings on the inside. To explain more would be to spoil the story. I’ll let you discover that on your own either in theaters or when “Encanto” begins streaming on Disney+ in late December. I would suggest in theaters as the spectacle of “Encanto” is best experienced on the biggest screen. I saw it in 3D but 2D would look just as amazing if you don’t want to spend the extra money.

“Encanto” is rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril. We see the flashback of Mirabel’s grandfather facing the bandits a couple of times. His death is suggested, not shown. There are also scenes where the family members are put in brief danger by events near the end of the film. Mirabel’s hand is cut by a fallen roof tile. There is no foul language.

“Encanto,” like all great animated films, made me teary eyed near the end. I wasn’t a full-on heap of blubbering mess like the end of “Toy Story 3,” but still emotional. “Encanto” isn’t groundbreaking or especially unique in the way it tells its story, the way it looks or the characters it uses. However, the film treads the well-worn path of human weakness and redemption in a bright, colorful and engaging way. Also, I find myself oddly attracted to Luisa Madrigal. Don’t yuck my yum.

“Encanto” gets five stars out of five.

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