Encanto (United States, 2021)

November 22, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Encanto Poster

In recent years, the two animation studios working under the Disney umbrella have been making a concerted attempt to shake free of their reputation as a White Princess Factory. The result: a pipeline of features populated with diverse casts – Coco, Soul, Luca, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Encanto. Like Soul, Encanto doesn’t have a villain in the traditional sense. This removes an element of artificiality that sometimes cripples animated films, but it remains to be seen how it will play to young audiences accustomed to a familiar template.

Solid world-building established in part by Disney’s usual top-notch animation places Encanto on firm footing from the beginning. Set in a secluded valley in Colombia, the movie tells the story of the magical family that protects the local populace. Each member of the Madrigal clan has a different ability. Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) is the matriarch, who established Encanto. Her children are Julieta (Angie Cepeda), who can heal with her cooking; Bruno (John Leguizamo), who has visions of the future; and Pepa (Carolina Gaitan), who can control the weather. The next generation includes Isabela (Diane Guerro), a beauty who can make flowers blossom; strong-woman Luisa (Jessica Darrow); Dolores (Adassa), who has exceptional hearing; shape-shifter Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz); and Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), who can talk to animals (like Dr. Dolittle!). The central character, bespectacled Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is different from all the other Madrigals in that she alone among her blood-relatives has no discernible talent. When the peace and prosperity of Encanto is threatened by a withering of the magic, it falls to Mirabel to discern the cause and preserve her family.

Encanto is bereft of the kind of busy, fast-moving plot that characterizes most animated films. While there are a few kid-friendly “action” sequences and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda contributes eight songs, the movie doesn’t feel like a generic Disney release. With a storyline that offers a mystery to solve but no “bad guy” to defeat, Encanto instead turns its attention to exploring the characters, their powers, and how they relate to one another. There are some zany comedic moments but also sequences of great heart. We as viewers immediately bond with Mirabel – the cheerful outsider who does her best to hide her disappointment. She never asks “What’s wrong with me?” but the question lingers especially when her grandmother is around.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Mirabel’s lack of magical talent (reminiscent of Bink in Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon) as representative of a disability. It’s something she overcomes with grace and good humor and those who doubt her worth come to see her as a valuable member of the community. That might sound preachy but, as presented in context, it’s not. Sometimes in animated films, there’s a tendency to overemphasize themes so younger viewers don’t miss them. In Encanto, the filmmakers find the sweet spot: not too strident, not too opaque.

The so-called “Miyazaki influence,” which has been evident in the output of both Disney and Pixar for decades, is stronger here than in many recent offerings with internal conflicts and misunderstood characters taking the place of outright villains. Over the years, Disney has become known for its princesses and iconic antagonists. A movie with neither is surprising. However, while aspects of the story may be atypical, the visuals are right in line with the top-notch expectations. Encanto is supposed to be a place of magic and wonder and the animators have excelled in bringing those qualities to the screen.

The voice actors are unusually low-profile for a Disney film – no Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, or Mel Gibson. (This follows a pattern adopted by recent Disney/Pixar films that was evident in 2021’s other releases, Luca and Raya and the Last Dragon.) The most recognizable names are John Leguizamo and Stephanie Beatriz (who appeared in Miranda’s In the Heights), but if there are times when anonymity can be an asset in animation, this is an example. With no baggage, the voice actors are able to fully become their characters. Meanwhile, although Miranda’s songs aren’t quite on the same level as his work for Vivo and Moana, they’re still a cut above what most animated films have to offer these days.

Ultimately, Encanto proves to be a departure from the mainstream for Disney animation – more along the lines of a WALL-E or Soul than a Frozen or Finding Nemo. The film is notable for continuing to expand the corporation’s reach into different cultures while displaying a welcome maturation of animation beyond the conventional American standard into something that, although no less family-friendly, is thought-provoking and stimulating.

Encanto (United States, 2021)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2021-11-24
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated/Fantasy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1