Producers: Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith Screenplay: Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush Cast: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, Angie Cepeda, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guererro, Jessica Darrow, Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, John Leguizamo, Maluma and Alan Tudyk Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Disney’s commitment to diversity in its animated fare is reaffirmed in this colorful musical about a family whose mystical powers sustain a small paradise in the wilds of Colombia, until their abilities are threatened. Buoyed by ebullient if rarely memorable numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda (and an equally upfront score by Germaine Franco), “Encanto” is a pleasant but overloaded tale that works diligently to be enchanting but never manages to be much more than serviceable.
The story falls within the tradition of magical realism embodied in the work of Gabriel García Márquez. As Alma Madrigal is fleeing her family’s native village along with her husband Pedro and their three infant children, they are accosted by sinister horsemen and Pedro is killed. The story thus starts with a very dark reference to the plight of refugees, but turns into a tale of hope: Alma’s loss transforms a candle into a perpetual flame, a source of strength for the Madrigals that constructs a “living” mansion called Casita for them and endows each with a special “gift” revealed in a ceremony on the child’s fifth birthday. The family becomes the protector of the larger community around their home.
The protagonist of the story, who introduces the family in Miranda’s festive opening ensemble, is Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz). Her eldest sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero), can make flowers bloom instantaneously, while middle sibling Luisa (Jessica Darrow) is a female Hercules, incredibly strong. Their mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda), married to endlessly supportive Agustin (Wilmer Valderrama), can heal illness through the food she prepares, while her sister Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) controls the weather through her emotional changes.
With her jovial husband Félix (Mauro Castillo) Pepa has two children who have already received their “gifts”: Dolores (Adassa), who possesses exceptionally acute hearing, and shape-shifting Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz); the third, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), is on the cusp of his fifth birthday celebration and through his ceremony is endowed with an ability to communicate with animals.
All are presided over by the widow Madrigal, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), who sternly attempts to maintain the status quo. Two other figures are practically family, Isabela’s hunk of a fiancé Mariano (Maluna), and Pico (Alan Tudyk), Mirabel’s wacky pet toucan.
This is a large, unwieldy ensemble to deal with, and although writer-directors Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush, their fellow director Byron Howard and editor Jeremy Milton do their best to ensure that everybody gets screen time, some characters remain obstinately in the background.
That’s definitely not true of Mirabel, a bespectacled girl who’s unique among her large family in not having been given a “gift.” Or perhaps she has, since as Antonio’s celebration approaches, she’s haunted by visions of the Madrigal mansion collapsing. Abuela Alma insists that she’s mistaken even though the abilities of her children and grandchildren have begun to fail, but Mirabel decides to look into the matter by seeking out her long-lost uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), born with the gift of prophecy, a Cassandra-like figure who disappeared years before–into the deep recesses of the house, as it happens.
Naturally Mirabel, initially overlooked as the gift-less one, will prove instrumental in saving the family’s future, and that of the community that depends on it, by enlisting Bruno in her efforts. The solution will come not from the outside but simply by healing divisions that have been building within the family; hugs are the ultimate medicine, along with a recognition of everyone’s strengths and needs.
Thus “Encanto,” proudly advertised as Disney’s sixtieth animated feature, is, like so much animated (and non-animated) fare today, essentially a story about a family that can be tested by fissures among its members but in the end comes together to support one another. The threat that confronts it comes not from some external, personalized villain—usually one of the strongest elements in the studio’s template—but from within. The reason behind the danger, frankly, remains as diffuse as the original cause of the family’s magic, but though she doesn’t have to defeat a wicked witch Mirabel proves as spunky and determined as any Disney heroine, though she looks rather different from most of them.
That reflects one of the film’ major strengths—its strong sense of cultural particularity, expressed with a sensitivity that avoids stereotyping, the result of the makers’ concerted effort to show appreciation for the society in which it’s set without getting preachy or didactic about it, as well as for its characteristic forms of artistic expression. That’s also embodied in Miranda’s songs, which are eclectic in terms of taking inspiration from everything from Broadway show tunes to hip-hop, but still sound authentic to the story’s place, especially in their instrumentation (Two are sung in Spanish, one repeated in an English version over the credits.) The voice actors have been carefully chosen in that respect as well.
And yet while one can’t help but admire the effort the writers and directors have expended, the fact remains that in terms of sheer storytelling, the film is a somewhat confused and clumsy affair that may be about magic but is only sporadically magical itself. It is also a family movie that may find greater appeal among older children and adults than it does among young kids, though Antonio is one of them and in they’ll enjoy Pico’s antics.
Despite a rather ramshackle narrative, however, in purely visual terms “Encanto” is outstanding. The animation blazes with vibrant color, and the efforts of production designer Ian Gooding and cinematographers Nathan Detroit Warner and Alessandro Jacomini bathe everything in a sumptuous glow. Scott Kersavage’s visual effects add to the punch of the imagery.
The film is preceded by another family story, Natalie Nourigat’s “Far from the Tree,” a sweet tale of a mother raccoon intent on protecting her inquisitive offspring from investigating the world beyond their cave, which she is concerned might lead the child to be injured as she was years before. It’s a charming, elegantly animated fable about helicopter parenting that in some respects is more engaging than the feature it’s paired with.