Colombia offers a hardy culture for Disney to fashion a clean family spectacle out of. Encanto treats culture both as something reductive and inherently simple but also as a beautiful flowery cornerstone upon which simple stories can be extrapolated from the national texts. There is so much of Gabriel García Márquez’s brand of Magical Realist literature accounted for, especially of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), sans incest or politicization of its messaging. Dear reader, you can expect what you have always gotten: a crowd-pleasing family movie that may be shallow of heart in its thematic depth but, on the surface, is an affectionate movie about why family matters, in the spirit of the season. It’s a relatively good and ordinary Disney picture, then, that effectively and uniquely drops usual key components, like having any sort of adversary, adventure, a divestment of any special power or ability, and certainly no dead parents. This is a family picture for families about families, and all the problems they create and all the problems they can solve together.
The Madrigals (see: Márquez’s Buendías) are an enchanted family. Everyone in the family is blessed with magic powers and they live in a magical house. In the tradition of Magical Realism, the extraordinary is mundane and the mundane is rather extraordinary. Young Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz, In the Heights), you see, doesn’t have any sort of powers. The family put on a fiesta and everything the prior year and after all of the ceremony, she went to open a door to receive and her magic power, and got nothing. As such, the logic goes: Mirabel is the extraordinary one. Her family, endowed with magical gifts, are to be accepted as ordinary, and not nearly as interesting. Which doesn’t always play as true. She has an exceptional family who are in love with themselves (again, unlike Márquez, not in an incestous way).
Because there is not a proper journey, the film struggles to maintain a proper structure. It could be broken into plain and prescriptive act structures, sure, but it does not move very much inside of them. We mostly stay around the family’s beloved home. Mirabel is having visions that the house will take on cracks and become uninhabitable. This knowledge frightens her family and makes its own cracks in their perfect façade. They have put so much emphasis on each individual and what makes them unique, they have simply forgotten what makes them a collective, and that the gift is obviously each other.
We get some beautiful secondary characters. By the nature of the story, they pretty easily eclipse our interest in our lead. Luis (Jessica Darrow) is built like an ox and plays unconventionally to usual Disney gendering. Her gift is that she’s brutally strong and dependable for any physical labor required by the family. Another sibling shape shifts and plays practical jokes (ah, good old Magical Realism, humor is a requirement). One of her sisters can hear through walls, which seems like more of a burden than a gift. It’s a large family and everyone has their one special thing and performatively do their one special thing and little else. Because of the lack of a central journey, the good news is it’s a fun cast of characters and we get to spend all of our time with them.
As the story progresses, Mirabel attends her younger brother’s ceremony. There is tremendous pressure this year, following the year where she did not recieve a gift, to find out if the family was still truly blessed. It does happen. Her brother can talk with animals. But it’s then that Mirabel begins having harsher visions. She can visualize the end of her family’s pride and joy (themselves, what they can do). She does go up a little tower and finds a vision from a long lost family member called Bruno (John Leguizamo). Bruno is a wonderful character. He’s not just eventually the glue that holds the film together but the natural center of its Disneyfied charms. He is silly and slapstick, and saves the movie from tedium as it has trouble working around its lack of a core conflict, but also benefits from the freer structural approach.
There are a few good Disney songs. The music is coordinated by Lin Manuel Miranda, so you may already know what you think of them. It ends up working just fine, burrowing distinct elements of Latin American (especially Colombian) music and utilizing that as a controlling ethos for the songs. Each song builds toward a generational tapestry, telling a whole story of a family through a series of interconnected songs that embrace each member of the ensemble. It’s a good fit.
By sidelining usual Disney cliches, Encanto finds some new ground. The film may have to occasionally drag its plotting from scene to scene, but it has a lot of character stories to tell. A whole family’s worth. It is a film about reconnection, the easy and sentimental kind that makes family animated films such sure things around the holidays. It’s easy to recommend to any family. It checks all of the Disney boxes, and unchecks just as many getting there, making it a standout among the recent batch of animated features.