Encanto marks the 60th animated feature film from Walt Disney Animation. Few studios have such an impressive track record over that many movies, as there are some absolute classics are in that mix, and their latest film is among its best.
Directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith, Encanto follows Mirabel (Stephane Beatriz), a young woman who lives with her extended family, the Madrigals, in a house ensconced in enchantment. It’s a magical house and it’s full of magical people. Every member of the Madrigal family has a unique gift that they use to better the lives of the town that surrounds them. Everybody in the family has these abilities... except Mirabel. When her time came, something went wrong and she was given no special power.
The specter of this hangs over the day that Mirabel’s younger cousin, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), is to be given his gift. While Mirabel claims that she’s fine being different from the rest of family, and they don’t think less of her because of it, nobody is being quite honest. And when something starts to go wrong with all the magic, the girl who never had any takes it upon herself to save everything.
On paper, Encanto checks all the boxes of the type of animated movie Disney is known for. It has a female protagonist who goes on a journey of self-discovery. She overcomes obstacles to find that she needs and what she wants aren’t necessarily the same thing. And she sings all the while. Encanto isn’t a revolutionary film for Disney, but the places where it makes changes to the formula make it stand out from the crowd.
First and foremost, the movie takes place in Colombia, and the voice cast is entirely of people of color (save Alan Tudyk's requisite cameo). This is much more than a simple aesthetic difference as everything from the look to the sound of Encanto is a little bit different than what we’re used to from Disney.
Every single Lin-Manuel Miranda song in Encanto is great.
And let’s talk about that sound. The songs all come from Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he continues to impress. Anybody familiar with Miranda’s work wouldn’t need to be told he wrote these songs, as several of them very much have his signature sound, and you could imagine him singing them as well as anybody.
Most of the songs are energetic, up-tempo numbers that would fit in a Broadway musical written by the man, with “Surface Pressure” sung by newcomer Jessica Darrow as Luisa (the strong one), being the soundtrack standout. However, even with the film’s “I want” song –Mirabel’s “Waiting on a Miracle,” which is the most traditional of the bunch – Miranda shows that can “do Disney” as well as anybody.
Encanto’s animation is breathtaking.
To go with the sounds, Encanto is an absolutely beautiful movie. It's visually stunning animation, full of bright colors at every turn. The cinematography, something that rarely gets called out in an animated movie because the camera is virtual, shows just how far computer animation has truly come.
In the end, all the catchy songs and beautiful images are wasted if the movie is missing its heart, but Encanto certainly has that as well. Mirabel is perhaps the most relatable protagonist in all 60 animated features. She is the definition of normal. Not being special is what makes her special, as the movie points out. She's not a princess, and she has no special talent that makes her the one to take on the responsibility.
The emotional journey of Encanto will resonate with almost anybody.
Mirabel’s hero’s journey is also more relatable than most. While she goes on an adventure, she never actually leaves her home. The metaphor is more than a little on the nose, but it works.
But Mirabel isn’t even the only relatable character. While Encanto is ultimately her story, there’s a lot going on with her cousins and siblings too. They get to voice their own emotions (in song, of course), and Mirabel begins to see not only herself, but her entire family, differently. Each member of the audience will find their own character they relate to most, and they’ll tear up accordingly.
While the other members of the Madrigal family do get some time to shine, Encanto is very much Mirabel’s journey and it is, by design, a somewhat lonely one for her. She does this largely all by herself. She has no animal sidekick that comes with her on her quest. As a result, it has to be said Encanto is one of the more serious adventures we’ve seen from Disney animation. There is still humor to be sure, but there is no character specifically designed to bring levity. As such, Encanto might be less engaging for the youngest viewers.
There are a handful of other minor quibbles one can have with Encanto. The magic at the core of the story doesn’t really follow any logical structure. It does whatever it needs to do for the story to work in the moment. Some questions asked early on that you might expect answers to never really come.
But while Encanto might be an original story, it is still, like so many of the animated Disney movies that came before it, a fairy tale. There’s a story to be told and a heartfelt message to be experienced, and in those regards, Encanto isn’t just a story about magic; it is magic.
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