Disney+ subscribers get a Christmas gift this year in Encanto, the Mouse House’s new animated musical about a Colombian family with magical powers. Notably, the film’s original songs were penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, further adding to his ubiquity here in 2021, a year in which he directed tick… tick… BOOM!, produced In the Heights and voice acted in, produced and wrote songs for Vivo. Anyone experiencing LMM fatigue – likely to be further tested considering the high probability of his receiving Oscar nominations – will be happy to know that his presence in Encanto isn’t immediately prevalent, because the film stands on its own as a perfectly delightful fantasy for the whole family.
A place out of time – we’re always looking for cell phones to get a specific idea of a movie’s setting, aren’t we, and there are none here, nor even a radio or, unless I’m mistaken, an electric light. So this is a kind of fairy tale then: Got it. It’s about the Madrigal family, led by Abuela (voice of Maria Cecilia Botero), widow, mother of triplets, founder of a village paradise for her kin and fellow refugees, keeper of a flame on a magical candle that endows her children and grandchildren with superhuman “gifts” and keeps the town safe. She’s one hell of a woman, is what I’m getting at. note: Full House Movie
But Abuela isn’t perfect – who is? – and we’ll get to that in a minute. We meet her granddaughter Maribel (Stephanie Beatriz), who’s the only Madrigal without magical powers. She gives us a Madrigal who’s-who via an upbeat song: Her mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can cure ailments with her cooking, sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) is super strong, sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) can make flowers grow, aunt Pepa’s (Carolina Gaitan) moods influence the weather, little cousin Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) can talk to animals, and there are others, which I’ll sum up by simply saying, “etc.” One might think Mirabel’s gift is the ability to summon earworms via imminently catchy expositional musical numbers, but one apparently would be wrong. She is the Madrigal misfit as the screenplay dictates, and one will just have to deal with it. note: Waterfall Movie
However, she isn’t the only Madrigal misfit. Nobody’s allowed to talk about her uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who’s been banished from the family’s magical, sentient house, dubbed Casita. Maribel discovers this buried family secret while investigating a potential threat to the Madrigal magic, manifesting via cracks in the Casita walls that apparently only she can see. It prompts a little quest of sorts for Maribel, who sniffs around behind the walls of the house and finds herself on an Indiana Jones set, and sings some more ditties as she pieces together the plot. Abuela, however, will have none of this; she’d rather cover up the family’s problems and pretend they don’t exist, believing it’ll preserve the candle flame. But as anybody who got at least a C in Psych 101 knows, suppressing ugly truths never works. So maybe Maribel has found her purpose: Shredding tradition in the name of enlightened progress, it seems.
Encanto is immediately gorgeous to the eye: Gobs and gobs of color, inspired character design and deep, rich backgrounds. The Casita, with it’s chattering floor tiles and stairs that transform into slides, is enchanting; a sequence in which little Antonio realizes his gift and rides through the jungle on the back of a jaguar is an absolute joy; another that seeks to resolve the rivalry between Mirabel and her “perfect” sister Isabela is as emotionally touching as it is visually lovely. This isn’t unexpected, it’s just Disney’s animation studio sparing no expense and putting for par, par excellence.
Maribel is a somewhat typical plucky teen protagonist who does her best to stave off her insecurities. She’s easy to love and empathize with. She sings a song referencing her “unspoken invisible pain,” but we never see her brood like Elsa; she’s the primary source of Encanto’s bright, uptempo tone, which dominates despite some relatively complex subject matter. Refreshingly, Maribel isn’t a princess per se, and she doesn’t face a villain. The only bad guy here is an abstraction – an outmoded notion that showing strength, even if it’s an illusion, can protect a family or a people. It’s a riff on generational discord, with Maribel challenging Abuela’s control, stemming from the Madrigal matriarch’s past trauma and a deep-seated fear of showing vulnerability.
Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? It’s really not. The movie’s pretty sneaky in the way it incorporates its ideas into its vivid aesthetic, brimming with light comedy, scads of eye candy and cheery, medium-catchy songs. (My initial inclination to interpret the story as a commentary on the need to dismantle the British monarchy turned out to be a bit of a stretch.) The film gets a little thematically muddy as it insists upon a shiny-happy ending, but the implication is, the Madrigal family needed to be torn down in order to move forward – and who better to do that than the black sheep? Encanto doesn’t conclude with the action-heavy chaos of so many other films of its ilk, because it’s more about rebuilding than destruction. And the rebuild is always about emphasizing hope for the future instead of a longing for the past.