Disney’s Encanto is, well, enchanting. It’s tricky to make an animated film so infused with exuberant sweetness without it becoming cloying. But this whimsical dose of magic realism set amid the lush greenery of the Colombian mountains benefits as much from the purity of the storytelling as the stunning vibrancy of the visuals. Aside from a quick nod to the inescapable Frozen anthem, “Let It Go,” and a funny throwaway gag about valet parking for burros, there are remarkably few of the usual winking cultural anachronisms designed to pander to contemporary kids. Instead, this is a film that commits to the timeless folklore of its South American setting to a transporting degree.
The project is led by two of the directors behind Zootopia, Jared Bush and Byron Howard, with co-direction from lead screenwriter Charise Castro Smith, a playwright making an impressive leap into features after TV credits ranging from Devious Maids to The Haunting of Hill House. The other indispensable member of the creative team is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who contributes eight buoyant original songs that blend his passion for traditional musical theater with Colombian music and the rapid-fire wordplay of hip-hop.
An absolute charmer.
The opening number does exactly what a good musical starter should do — it deftly sets the tone, maps out the history and breakdown of the large gallery of characters, and zooms in on the principal figure, Mirabel Madrigal. Voiced with delightful verve by Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), the 15-year-old is a beloved member of the extended family but also something of an outsider, who hides her melancholy feelings of inferiority by being a model of cheery helpfulness.
That same song, “The Family Madrigal,” also introduces their casita, a multistory fairy-tale house with its own magical powers. Its roof and floor tiles, doors and windows all move in rhythm with the music, communicating with the Madrigals in inventive ways and nudging the physical comedy.
Mirabel’s grandmother, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), has the warmth of the classic salt-of-the-earth matriarch but also a watchful sternness. She is literally the keeper of the flame, a candle delivered to her in a time of tragedy that burns eternally, fueling the family’s magic. Forced to flee her native village with three newborn infants, Alma lost her husband, Pedro, in an attack by bandits. The candle caused the Madrigal house to appear out of uninhabited jungle and has granted a special gift to all Alma’s children and grandchildren ever since, revealed on each one’s fifth birthday.
Mirabel’s mother, Julieta (Angie Cepeda), can heal any illness with her cooking; her sister Isabela (Diane Guererro) is a dazzling beauty who makes flowers bloom; eldest sibling Luisa (Jessica Darrow) possesses superhuman strength; Aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather with her feelings; cousin Dolores (Adassa) has extraordinary hearing; and another cousin, Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), is an irrepressible entertainer with shape-shifting powers.
Only Mirabel has no gift. The anticlimax of her fifth birthday celebration, when the magical doorway with her name on it simply crumbled to dust, still weighs heavily on her 10 years later. On her Abuela too, especially with the gift ceremony of Mirabel’s young cousin Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) fast approaching. Alma is concerned that the magic — which has cocooned the family for three generations and supported the village community that sprung up around them — may be burning out.
When Mirabel has a vision of the enchanted casita cracking up, she fears the worst, her apprehension shared by Abuela and by Luisa, who begins to find her Herculean feats an effort. She reveals the unsuspected vulnerability beneath her mighty strength in the song, “Surface Pressure,” another standout.
Feeling that her lack of a gift has let the family down — and in need of some uplifting self-validation, in accordance with the Disney rulebook — Mirabel takes it upon herself to investigate what’s jeopardizing the magic, a quest that takes her through hidden passages and vast chambers inside the walls of the house to track down her mysterious Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who disappeared years earlier.
Much of the movie’s considerable charm comes from the fact that despite the magical elements inherent even in its title, the story is basically about the dynamics of any large, close-knit family of contrasting personalities. The majority of the Madrigals’ gifts correspond to qualities often found among more ordinary mortals — the tradition-bound grandmother; the nurturing mother; the impossibly pretty golden-child sister (whose mean-girl attitude is frequently directed at Mirabel); and the selfless, hardworking older sibling, burdened by a sense of responsibility. Mirabel is basically any teenager perceived as unexceptional, who really just wants to be seen and acknowledged for her own special traits.
The characters who have married into the family are equally recognizable types: Mirabel’s father, Agustín (Wilmer Valderrama), is a lovably clumsy dad who dotes on all the women that dominate the household; and there’s a life-of-the-party uncle like Pepa’s husband, Félix (Mauro Castillo), in every family.
As much as the story hinges on Mirabel discovering what threatens the Madrigal magic and endangers their refuge, on a more fundamental level it’s about this big, complicated group reestablishing its harmony, learning to appreciate, even celebrate, one another’s qualities, whether they are extravagant or simple. And it’s about a community coming together to rebuild what’s lost and fortify one another in the process.
Those sentiments are expertly drawn out by the excellent voice cast and evoked in Miranda’s flavorful songs, including two numbers written in Spanish: “Dos Oruguitas,” performed by Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastián Yatra, is a soulful allegorical retelling of the love story between Abuela Alma and her late husband; and “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is a stirring homeland salute sung by national pop superstar Carlos Vives. In a nice touch of artistic continuity, Alma’s singing voice is provided by Miranda’s In the Heights Abuela, Olga Merediz.
The film continues Disney’s reach for more diverse representation in its animated features, following recent titles Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon and Pixar’s Coco, which shares a Latin American setting but is entirely different in its distinctly Mexican sensibility.
The colors of Encanto are sumptuous, as is the marvelous detail in the costumes and production design, nowhere more so than the Madrigals’ truly animated house — a merchandizing opportunity waiting to happen. The natural settings are even more beautiful, notably a river fed by cascades where Abuela takes Mirabel to share her story. And the animal life that’s so much a part of the classic Disney toon is not neglected, with a cheeky toucan “voiced” by Alan Tudyk and a whole menagerie that appears in connection to one character’s gift, including a jaguar, tapirs, capybaras, even cute rats. Luisa’s rounding up of the wandering donkeys gets big laughs.
Disney clearly recognizes the potential to reach family audiences over the holidays with this Thanksgiving release; the touching, tender but ultimately joyous story is going the theatrical route, with a Disney+ premiere to follow in December. Encanto is ideally paired with Far From the Tree, a lovely seven-minute short, written and directed by Natalie Nourigat, which mirrors the feature’s themes of family and the safety of home in its captivating story of a strict but loving raccoon parent struggling to keep its curious offspring from harm.