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Finding something the whole family can watch during the holidays is a perennial challenge. It’s as much a part of tradition as turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas carols on the radio soon after. This holiday season, Disney is serving up a warm, feel-good family friendly movie called “Encanto,” a Colombian magical realist tale of a family that received special powers after surviving a tragedy. Now, a few generations later, they live together in a magical house and each member develops their own talent, like the ability to control the weather, shapeshift into other people, and talk to animals. Their casita (house) responds to the family’s requests and responds to their moods. Each bedroom is magically tailored to the relative and their magical gift. All except for one, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz).
“Encanto” follows the “girl with no apparent gift” Mirabel, who tries her best to fit in a family so extraordinary that her judgmental Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero) offers only her disappointment at every turn. For Mirabel, it’s tough to stand out when her mom, Julieta (Angie Cepeda), can heal wounds with her cooking—more specifically, her arepas con queso, her sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) can lift the heaviest of objects with ease, and her sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) can grow the most beautiful flowers without barely thinking about it. Mirabel notices the family’s casita is starting to show cracks, but no one believes her and downplays her worries as something her estranged eccentric uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) would say. It’s up to Mirabel to find out what’s happening to save both her family and her home.
Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (“Zootopia”) and co-director Charise Castro Smith (”Raya and the Last Dragon”), who bears more than a passing resemblance to the movie’s main character, have created another kind hearted movie about misfits trying to do the right thing. Most notably, there’s no villain in this Disney movie, just a nebulous “unknown” threatening the family and their home. The conflict is minimal at best, which allows for Mirabel to spend more time learning about what she can do despite her lack of powers, but it also leaves the movie feeling a bit meandering. To make up for lost action, the movie shines in its animation and design, really making use of the house with doors to new worlds and musical sequences that allow for a little more abstract artistic freedom.
Speaking of those musical sequences, I think it’s time Lin-Manuel Miranda takes a break. After knocking it out of the park with “In the Heights,” “Hamilton” and “Moana,” his 2021 offerings have been a little lackluster. For this review, I finally watched the movie “Vivo,” in which he voices the title character as well as handles the song writing duties. Those numbers sounded flimsy and forgettable. In one song, he rhymes “drum” with… “drum.” In “Encanto,” the odds are a little better, more songs fare better than others, but there’s still a sense that these musical numbers are the reheated leftovers from other projects. They sound like his work, but don’t offer anything new or exciting to get stuck in our heads. Isabela and Luisa’s disposable pop songs "What Else Can I Do?" and "Surface Pressure" are cloyingly repetitive. “The Family Madrigal” is a less effective version of the opening song from “In the Heights.” Only Carlos Vives’ rendition of Miranda’s song "Colombia, Mi Encanto" sounds like a memorable stand-out.
Unimpressive songs are an unfortunate thing to befall an animated musical like “Encanto.” Thankfully, there are other elements to enjoy like the movie’s boisterous voice cast that includes Carolina Gaitán, Rhenzy Feliz, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Wilmer Valderrama, Mauro Castillo, and one-name Latin music stars Maluma and Adassa. It’s also impressive to see an animated Disney movie finally include varying skin tones and hair textures in the same family, while also incorporating Colombian fashion like ponchos, flowing embroidered skirts, colorful dresses and guayaberas as part of a character’s details. Beatriz is magnificent as Mirabel, embodying both pain and love in her voice throughout the film, yet never losing a sense of the goofy playfulness that makes her character so likeable. Abuela’s singing voice comes from the one and only Olga Merediz, another “In the Heights” alum.
Similar to how Pixar’s “Coco” paid tribute to Mexican culture, “Encanto” holds many nods to its Colombian roots, from the use of flowers and animals specific to the regions to crafting songs that incorporated their respective countries’ musical palette. In both stories, the matriarchal abuelas have to also go through an emotional journey just as much (if not more) than the younger protagonists in the movie. It’s an interesting development to see both Pixar and Disney Animation move into the world tour phase of their storytelling, but I hope they avoid repeating each other in thematic and narrative elements.
One difference is that “Encanto” explores the Madrigals’ backstory beyond their household, showing the Madrigal grandparents fleeing their homeland for safety and Abuelo’s ultimate sacrifice in an artistic flashback. The story of a homeland lost and the family who rebuilt in a new land is not an uncommon one for many immigrant families, and by sensitively including it as part of a charming Disney movie, perhaps will give a new generation a better sense of belonging or at least the comfort that others have shared their experience. It may help kids who didn’t grow up with those stories of a “paradise lost” to understand those that did. Maybe that’s an optimistic view for a movie many will flock to in a post-turkey coma, but despite a few missteps, “Encanto” is one of the more charming animated movies to hit theaters this year.
Exclusively in theaters today.
Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel Madrigal (voice)
John Leguizamo as Bruno Madrigal (voice)
María Cecilia Botero as Abuela Alma Madrigal (voice)
Wilmer Valderrama as Agustín Madrigal (voice)
Diane Guerrero as Isabela Madrigal (voice)
Jessica Darrow as Luisa Madrigal (voice)
Angie Cepeda as Julieta Madrigal (voice)
Adassa as Dolores Madrigal (voice)
Mauro Castillo as Félix Madrigal (voice)
Rhenzy Feliz as Camilo Madrigal (voice)
Carolina Gaitán as Pepa Madrigal (voice)
Ravi Cabot-Conyers as Antonio Madrigal (voice)
Maluma as Mariano (voice)
Alan Tudyk as Pico (voice)