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Encanto

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by Matt Anderson

published November 15, 2021

Encanto — Disney’s 60th animated feature — is a trip worth taking, even though the final destination is a little ho-hum.

The Gifted Family Madrigal

Encanto follows the lead of Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, this time heading to South America and establishing the Colombia Cultural Trust. But the problem is Encanto comes across as a generic story trying to benefit from a fresh setting. The cultural aspects don’t run through the core of the story; any native, indigenous lore is superseded by the domestic aspects. The anthropology is more in tune with what goes on in the kitchen than in the mind. That’s a sharp contrast to Encanto’s predecessors, which explored Polynesia and Asia via stories that would be hard to place anywhere else.

As the characters are introduced and the scenario is established, there’s the giddy anticipation something profound is going to be revealed. It all begins with a family forced to flee their village 50 years ago. After the patriarch is killed, a prayerful moment with the matriarch yields a magical transformation and she becomes the guardian of a candle that lights the family’s way both literally and figuratively.

This tribe of travelers establishes a new home and becomes a vital part of the community. But they’re far from being a traditional family. Each member celebrates a sort of pre-coming-of-age ceremony on their fifth birthday in which their magical gift is unveiled. For example, one has superhuman strength, one is a shapeshifter and one has the power to transform everything around her into a scene of floral beauty.

But one, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, In the Heights), has no special gift. It’s heartbreaking to witness her disappointment as her ceremony turns into a major letdown. How could it be this sweet little girl has been left out in the cold, with nothing unique to set her apart? It’s an enticing setup and the directions and extents to which such a situation could go serve up all sorts of possibilities. Especially in an area as inviting to adventure as Colombia.

The Ungifted Mirabel

Mirabel passes the next 10 years as the family’s appeaser, helping with whatever wherever and whenever. Then there’s a disturbance in the magical Encanto (the name itself indicates a place of spirituality) and she is teased with juicy, magical messages like “find the vision,” “save the magic” and “your future awaits.”

Surely something deeply meaningful is on the horizon. The friendly, magical confines of Casa Madrigal is being threatened by a dark force and Mirabel takes it upon herself to solve those riddles and save the family.

Alas, the big reveal doesn’t live up to such lofty expectations, which is all the more disappointing given the creative team behind Encanto. Co-directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard also co-directed the surprisingly sophisticated satire Zootopia, while Bush also wrote the screenplay for Moana and worked on Raya as a “creative leader.” And, for what it’s worth, Mirabel (who at times comes so close to verging into Dora the Explorer territory) looks quite a lot like Encanto’s third co-director and co-writer, Charise Castro Smith, who also worked on Raya in that “creative leadership” capacity.

Regardless of the narrative shortcomings, the movie still works. Indeed, this is a case of it being more about the journey than the climax.

And it is a fun, vibrant journey. The animation is gorgeous, if not at the same meticulously detailed level of Raya, Disney’s landed on a solid style that blends the old hand-drawn charms with the slick finesse and luscious imagery made possible by modern computer animation.

The Power of Music

The best parts stem from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs. Yes, the mastermind behind Hamilton and Moana is back to accompany viewers on this trip to Colombia and, in addition to providing a couple great showstoppers, Miranda also contributes as one of the story’s writers.

Songs like Waiting on a Miracle, Surface Pressure and We Don’t Talk About Bruno fit in nicely with the broader Disney animated musical library that includes timeless treasures by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken in ‘90s classics such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.

It’s during those musical numbers when the movie really opens up with visual flair and narrative style. The characters, the scenery and the situations all merge into a package that pushes mightily to elevate Encanto into something special in its own right.

It’s not the masterful, wholly satisfying tale that is Moana and the story isn’t as multifaceted as Pixar’s Luca. But Encanto has enough positive messages about family bonds, enough good humor and enough magic to muster a mild recommendation.