Encanto – Movie Review

Encanto

  • Directors: Byron Howard and Jared Bush
  • Screenwriters: Jared Bush, Charise Castro Smith
  • Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo

Grade: B+

The biggest issue that Disney has with Encanto is that the film is a Disney production. With the bar already set so high from the prolific animation studio, it’s becoming harder and harder for a new film to rise above what has come before. That’s not to say that Encanto is a bad film by any means; rather, it can’t help but be compared to Disney’s other recent entries. The film has all the makings of a great animated classic – and it may even be Disney’s best of this year – but when looking at the Mouse House’s total output, it’s hard not to be reminded of other, more unique visions.

The most obvious comparison is to 2017’s Coco, which dealt with a Mexican family and their encounters with the supernatural. Encanto centers around a similarly Latinx family that is gifted with a magical house that grants each of their family members a different ability. That is, everyone except teenager Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). As explained in the film’s opening minutes, the house magically appears, along with a candle that never goes out, after the family’s matriarch loses her husband while they flee their home country. The house also comes alive, which provides for some fun visual gags: the ceramic tiles slither around, the staircase turns into a slide sometimes, and the shutters feel expressively playful, despite not having a face. Think of the house as a silent version of the anthropomorphized characters from Beauty and the Beast.

The film does quick work of establishing each family member’s abilities, the rules of how the magic works, and what roles they play within the family and the community they serve. With such a sprawling cast it’s easy for one or two characters to get short-changed, but it’s a little strange that Mirabel’s parents, and her relationship to them, are barely developed. Mirabel, as the only family member without a gift – the film goes out of its way to frequently refer to their abilities as gifts, not superpowers, lest they seem ungrateful or arrogant – still remains positive and helpful, though she can’t lift buildings or heal wounds or talk to animals. We’re shown through flashback when Mirabel was old enough to receive her gift, but for some unexplained reason, the house wouldn’t bestow it upon her. This brings to light another of Disney’s common themes: the black sheep of the family. Except in this instance, it’s out of Mirabel’s control and she desperately wants to fit in. Before long, Mirabel begins to see cracks in the house that threaten to destroy it, and certain members of the family experience temporary outages in their powers.

One of the films biggest strengths is in the way it uses the confines of the magical home to create wondrously unique atmospheres. Each person’s room appears to exist in their own fantastical environment, which reflects their abilities. Older sister Isabela, who can create flowers, has a room that’s covered in colorful pinks and reds and purples. Uncle Bruno, who can predict the future, lives in a sandy cavern that wouldn’t be out of place in the deserts of Agrabah. Each of the characters is given their own unique looks and style, not least of which is Mirabel, with her green circular glasses, curly hair, and colorful dress.

Lending to Encanto‘s throwback feel are the musical interludes, which have been missing from Disney and Pixar’s collective films since 2019’s Frozen II. The film boasts perhaps the best original songs since 2016’s Moana; surely it’s no coincidence that Lin-Manuel Miranda produced the music for both. But whereas Moana felt more akin to the larger body of Miranda’s musical work, Encanto treads its own ground and dips into more varied musical stylings. “Surface Pressure” is an upbeat, hip-hop infused banger, while “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is humorously light. That the film comes closest to a “Let It Go”-style ballad with “Waiting For a Miracle” in the early minutes of the film doesn’t dilute its power, especially given the visual style that directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush imbue the sequence with.

For all its narrative similarities, the film does have subtle touches that distinguish it from the majority of Disney’s films. Though the film does have plenty of animal tagalongs (yes, “voiced” by Alan Tudyck) they only make brief appearances. And though Mirabel is technically a princess, by way of being a descendant of a family that’s treated like royalty in their community, her journey is more internal than that of other modern Disney princesses. At the end of the day, she just wants to keep her family together.

Perhaps Disney didn’t intend to release a film that’s centered around a family and a magical house, which they barely stray from, in the late stages of a global pandemic that kept families confined to one setting for the better part of a year. Its singular location makes it easy to see the film as the next Disney-Broadway adaptation. I have no doubts that both kids and adults will enjoy Encanto because of its memorable characters and fun musical sequences. I hope to bring my own kids to a screening when it’s safe to do so. The younger audiences may ultimately be drawn to Disney’s more fantasy-centric offerings from this year like Luca or Raya and the Last Dragon, but Disney has found another solid offering with Encanto.

Encanto premieres in theaters on November 24.

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