We’re not just protecting what we have, but all that could be and everything that should be.
It’s no secret that Disney Animation has dominated the animated movie market since animation became a viable method of cinematic expression. Disney’s newest offering, Encanto, brings the story of Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), one of the youngest members of the magical Madrigal family, whose matriarch Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) established the community around a magical, sentient house created by a magic candle; created after her husband Pedro sacrifices himself to save them from marauders attacking their hometown. Mirabel is the only member of the Madrigal family not to receive her own personal magical gift; and when the candle’s flame starts to fade, she races against time to find out whether she can restore it – or whether she is to blame.
Encanto continues the modern tradition of Disney’s animation of moving away from adaptation of established fairytales, choosing instead to create a new story crafted around folklore and spirituality from a specific region (much like Moana or Raya And The Last Dragon); this time leaning on Latin American culture, specifically that of Colombia, influenced heavily by the experiences of Juan Rendon and Natalie Osma, who worked with screenwriters Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush to craft the world of Encanto, along with input from Byron Howard, Jason Hand, Nancy Kruse and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter of whom also crafted the excellent soundtrack. As with all Disney musical adventures, the music is at the heart of this story; and Miranda has arguably produced some of his best work for this film; building on the excellent soundtrack to Moana and his experience in bringing Latin American music into mainstream productions to create an incredibly accessible and entertaining soundtrack – one could say that it’s a bop, if one was so inclined. The songs are fronted heavily by Stephanie Beatriz (whose singing voice was an unexpected treat); but in traditional Disney style, everyone gets their chance to shine at various points, and it’s no surprise that the primary ensemble narrative song, We Don’t Talk About Bruno, is the one which has currently sprung to the top of the music charts following Encanto’s Disney+ streaming release, given Miranda’s experience with stage musicals, but any of these tracks could easily stake a claim on a number one spot – as is now standard, I’m listening to the soundtrack while writing this review and I’m genuinely struggling to stop the rest of my body from grooving along while I try to type. I don’t know which song from this soundtrack will be pushed for the Oscar nomination, but I think it’d be a real shame if Miranda misses out again (I’m still salty about City Of Stars from La La Land beating out How Far I’ll Go from Moana in 2016).
Music is not the only contributing factor to Encanto, of course, and the voice cast is on top form. Stephanie Beatriz’s masterful control over the pitch of her voice allows for a range of emotional response that many would not necessarily be able to achieve, as well as adding a depth to her singing performances, and it’s a surprise that she hasn’t been tapped for more voiceover work. The passion and determination she evokes from Mirabel on her quest to restore the family’s magic is matched only by the range of emotion she pulls from the character, and her comic chops get their run out as well; allowing her to bring forth a perfectly-rounded central character for the audience to take their point of view from. The rest of the family Madrigal rely on stereotypes related to their magical abilities to build their characterisation from, in traditional fantasy style, and the supporting cast does a great job of bringing this to life. Particular shout-out goes to Adassa, who makes her big-screen debut here as the Mirabel’s cousin Dolores, who can hear everything that happens in the town and only ever speaks at a hurried whisper; enhanced by her parts in the soundtrack leaning into her reggaeton performance background by being performed in a rap tamber, against the rest of the cast’s more traditional Latin-American singing style, which allows Dolores to stand out performatively. Diane Guerero and Jessica Darrow also impress as Mirabel’s sisters Isabella and Luisa, and the sisterly rivalry the three have with each other bubbles under the surface of the primary narrative in a satisfying way, fuelling Mirabel’s quest in a subtext that will speak to everyone with siblings.
The older generations get their time too, and are also brought to life with as much care and love as the youngsters; Maria Botello shines as Abuela Alma, carrying not only the authority of the matriarch of both the family and the town, but also the love and fear that comes with leading a family. John Leguizamo is a joy as Bruno, putting in a performance that can’t be discussed at length without spoilers, but sells the character perfectly for the narrative. The rest of the family is rounded out by Mirabel’s parents, aunt and uncle and cousins; all of whom have a less impactful role in the narrative, but are still brought to life in a passionate and considerate way. Angie Cepeda gets her moment across from Beatriz as Mirabel’s mother Julietta, as does Wilmer Valderrama as her father Agustin; and it’s only upon reflection that I realise they had a more limited role in the narrative itself. That is certainly not a criticism, and the key scene that Mirabel and Julietta share together is deeply important for Mirabel’s journey (perhaps more so than any other isolated aspect of the story); but it does highlight the difficulty in highlighting performances in an ensemble piece such as this, where every supporting character plays as important a part in the hero’s quest as everyone else.
One member of the ensemble cast whose impact is less felt in the narrative, but on that I feel should be highlighted, is Alan Tudyk; who is credited as the voice of a toucan, continuing the trend of casting Tudyk as animal companions in Disney animated films, and one which I hope continues in perpetuity for as long as Tudyk wishes to keep doing it, because it makes me laugh every time I watch the credits of a modern Disney feature.
It would be remiss not to mention the animation, and while it does not look to break boundaries in the same way that Sony Animation are with the likes of Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse; Encanto is an unashamedly beautiful film. The animators have lent into the magical nature of the town to craft a bright and vibrant world for the Madrigal family to occupy, enhanced by their own magic for the better, and there is an obvious joy of creation that emanates in every scene. From the detail of the colours on the animals, such as the aforementioned toucan, to the diversity of the flowers bloomed by Isabella and the dynamic weather effects created by Mirabel’s aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitan); or the mysterious green glow through the shadows surrounding the depictions of Bruno; this film is a visual delight; perfectly complimenting the bright joy of the soundtrack to create a feast for the senses.
The highlight of Encanto for me, again following on from Moana and Raya And The Last Dragon, is that this film does not have a villain, in the true sense of the word. There certainly is threat, and danger and suspense; but there is no singular person around whom that threat is built, and that method of narrative construction resonates in such a powerful way for me. This film is not about defeating the bad guy; it is about overcoming personal self-doubt, anxiety and fear; deeply personal concepts and constructions that everyone can relate to. Disney’s pivoting in its animations to telling stories that can inspire confidence and belief in one’s self, establishing that it is love and friendship and family that we have to support is, is such a fascinating direction to take, and one that I am deeply enjoying watching develop and grow.
Encanto is a joy to watch, with a fascinating story brought together by an excellent cast, incredible music and beautiful visuals. I cannot recommend it enough, especially for a family movie night.