Movie review: Encanto
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, clever writing and an animation style that reveres racial difference ensure Encanto casts a durable spell with enough power to make you forget it’s Disney formula.
Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John LEGUIZAMO, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Carolina Gaitan
Directed by: Jared Bush, Byron Howard
Running time: 1 hr 32 mins
Opening in theatres November 19, 2021
By Katherine Monk
A house full of spirits would normally be considered “haunted” in the world of movies, but thanks to Latin America’s full embrace of ‘Los Muertos,’ the afterlife, and the continuation of family through the ages, Encanto offers us a colourful casita packed with love, benevolence and magic.
Directors Jared Bush (Moana, Zootopia) and Byron Howard (Zootopia, Enchanted) tell us the story of a girl named Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) and her extended family of Madrigals. The sprawling clan has called a remote Colombian valley home for decades, and in the opening number penned by the seemingly ubiquitous Lin-Manuel Miranda, we hear the whole origin story in song.
Forced to flee from oppression, Abuela Alma, her husband, and three infant children found themselves running through the wilderness. As the troops closed in around them, the patriarch sacrificed himself for his loved ones. It was a tragedy, but his altruism conjured a benevolent spell, allowing his family to not only survive, but to thrive in a secluded, secret valley in Colombia.
By setting the story in a war torn part of Central America, the Mouse House seems to be leaving the safety of the magical castle walls and exploring the world we live in now, where refugees are a reality and the threat of tyranny looms ever larger.
Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) was just a young woman when the miracle began, but now, as an aging matron of a sprawling family, she worries the magic may be fading. It’s a fact she can’t ignore, largely because a little girl named Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) didn’t receive a magical “gift” like the rest of her family. Indeed, every other one of the magical Madrigals has some superhuman power — whether it’s super strength, the ability to predict the future or manipulating the weather.
The film opens with Mirabel’s disappointment, but we pick it up a few years later, after she’s had time to deal with her lack of magical gifts. She’s upbeat and happy because she’s part of a magical whole — and we feel it through the music. Miranda gets our toes tapping as Mirabel tells us about her magic house and how it’s protected her family for generations until something happened to brother Bruno (John Leguizamo).
“We don’t talk about Bruno,” is a family chorus for the duration. We just don’t know why the code of silence persists, until Mirabel takes it upon herself to save the family’s magical casita. Believing Bruno may be able to answer the mystery of the fading family magic, Mirabel sets out to find him — and the truth.
If you stand back far enough, you can see the outlines of every other Disney classic piece of animation, from Cinderella and Frozen, to The Lion King. A young character embarks on a perilous voyage of self-discovery that will inevitably transform the very world she calls home.
What makes this particular instalment of Disney dream-weaving a little bit different is texture. Pulling from a colourful Central American tradition that features brilliant cotton and woollen embroidery, we can almost feel the threads of every garment thanks to careful animation that captures the essence of the real thing without being a slave to the photographic image.
It’s about more than representing the fabrics and textiles, it’s about paying homage to centuries of Colombian life and design through handmade craft. It’s like a nod between the artisans of old and the modern modellers of pixels.
Without these details that refer to reality, the movie could have lost itself in an eddy of magic and spells that would have amused an all-ages audience, but probably would have felt a little thin and empty as far as emotions go.
Mirabel’s clothes are beautifully rendered, but they bring an emotional component to the story because we can tell she embroidered a butterfly onto her dress by herself. It’s not perfect, and nor is she. All of which makes her extra-sympathetic because we can’t help but see ourselves in all her ordinariness, and in turn, her desire to be more than she is.
Mirabel wants to make her family proud and be of some worth to her community, just like little Simba, Elsa and countless other Disney incarnations who teach us life’s lessons through example. (Check out the accompanying short film about a mummy and baby raccoon packaged with Encanto for more of the same moral equating.)
Few studios can convince us of a moral continuum with the same conviction as Disney because it’s as much a part of their brand as felt and plastic mouse ears. They literally bank of ideas of goodness, fairness and truth.
Encanto brings every one of these negotiable ideals to the fore, and exchanges them for good will, brand loyalty, and no doubt, a great opening weekend box office. The directors even wink at the larger transaction — between its paying audience and the studio — as characters question the value of magic itself.
Combined with some clever writing that finds just enough irony to be sassy without being vulgar, an animation style that reveres racial difference, and a central character you want to take home and hug, Encanto casts a durable spell with enough power to make you forget it’s formula.
THE EX-PRESS, November 19, 2021