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'Encanto' Review: Disney's newest takes a colorfully Colombian lens to intergenerational anxiety

The animation studio's latest big-hearted adventure is an affair rooted in home, and in feeling like an outsider in your own family.
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Home is where the heart is, and, boy, doesn’t “Encanto” know it.

The massive casita at the movie’s center is where much of Disney Animation’s colorfully kinetic carousel ride takes place, resembling a jubilant cousin of “Monster House’s” demonic dwelling in the way its floorboards dance and its staircases shimmer. At the same time, it just barely manages to contain the outsized personalities of the Madrigal family it houses, and of which almost every member has been granted an ability shrinking the proverbial distance between them and the Incredibles. There’s big-muscled Luisa (Jessica Darrow), blessed with super strength. There’s motherly Julieta (Angie Cepeda), anointed with the know-how to make food with healing properties. There’s also slightly boastful Isabela (Diane Guerrero), bringing a whole new meaning to flower power.

The (very ordinary, and very ambiguous) residents of a nearby town approach the Madrigal home with near-devout reverence; it’s a Mt. Olympus made of adobe whose resident gods are able and willing to lend an assist wherever they can. That’s admittedly the simplest metaphor in a kaleidoscopically metaphorical movie. Older audience members might spot topical reflections of immigration stories and the act of doing one’s part to turn newfound sanctuary into a home, though we also can’t hold it against “Encanto” that it opts in favor of bombastic but momentum-stalling musical sequences over simmering ruminations on migrant struggle.

No, the target audience for co-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith remains firmly the younger moviegoer who will be easily amused, perfectly distracted and likely even entranced by the pure energy of “Encanto.” They’re also sure to sympathize with familiarly plucky protagonist Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who we meet singing her lungs out to the local youngsters in a clever subversion of the cliche “Meet my family!” number for the way her enthusiasm eventually gives way to drained self-esteem.

Mirabel, it turns out, is the only Madrigal not to have been granted a special ability; in the parlance of her abuela, the household’s matriarch, she’s missing her own “miracle.” From her perspective, “Encanto” becomes an endearing story about intergenerational anxiety and familial outsiderdom, though if the most notable of Disney Animation’s recent efforts have proven anything it’s that being an outsider in your family is merely the first step on the way to eventually piecing it back together.

Mirabel’s grasping of that destiny forms the bulk of “Encanto,” which conforms Colombian-inspired textures to a familiar but reliably cathartic narrative mold. A spirit of communal celebration persists even after a first-act ceremony takes a turn for the ominous, and fleeting moments of chisme between cousins provide the movie’s breakneck pacing with instantly relatable doses of Latino-family bonding. Certain details of Colombian life can’t help getting swallowed up by the supernatural pivots, sure, but several months after “In The Heights” raised eyebrows for its narrow casting choices, the image of a group of awestruck Colombian children depicted across a range of skin tones takes a meaningful swing at the ongoing effort to dismantle misconceptions regarding cultural monoliths.

For the most part, “Encanto” is feverish, festive fun; a warm-hearted movie that continues to ride its thematic longitude of under-the-same-roof angst even while granting itself the latitude to imbue the physical spaces under that roof with an unpredictably expansive scope. In one of the script’s more underused stabs at invention, individual rooms are imagined as massive abodes stretching far beyond logical boundaries (I guess being grounded isn’t so much a concern for younger Madrigals). More than merely providing a chance for “Encanto” to briefly slip into “Indiana Jones” cosplay, the home’s many doors and chambers are representative of the family’s unspoken past, as well as the whispered aspects of its present.

The Madrigals would rather party, dance and cook away as a way of sweetening over the sour chapters of their past, and the moment Mirabel recognizes that for herself is when “Encanto” encroaches on more fertile thematic territory, or at least glances towards it with a longing eye. For the elder family members, the best way to gently shun ordinary relatives is distancing themselves by helping the community or preparing for the next carnival, and in that ironic twisting of “Encanto’s” exuberant aesthetic the film softly crackles more than it stings. But it also gives way to the musical high point, a most sumptuous mid-movie sequence in which collaborator Lin-Manuel Miranda more than makes up for the general indistinctiveness of his other original songs, turning the mystery of ostracized relative Bruno into a sexy, lively number.

The more mechanical elements of “Encanto” also tend to groan under wear and tear. For a few years now the storytellers of Disney Animation have been preoccupied with inserting a few too many cogs in their movies’ gimmickry, perhaps as a way to measure up to corporate housemate Pixar. The visual of cracks snaking through Casa Madrigal’s infrastructure is simple and powerful enough as a symbolic reminder of what’s at stake in “Encanto,” so how vital, really, is the tension of a flickering candle which supplies the home with its magic for as long as it stays lit? Are we to understand the flame hasn’t gone out in decades? The studio has wrangled a mini-renaissance over the last decade out of existential arcade-game avatars and Polynesian legend by dovetailing the endearing with the inventive, and while “Encanto” manages to hit both priorities in a cheerfully chaotic key, it can also feel a bit overanxious. It’s only in fits and starts that the story’s mysticality meshes confidently with the family dynamics at its core.

The biggest issue with the otherwise enjoyable and effervescent “Encanto” is that for how prominent a character Mirabel’s abuela is, the relationship between the two is too thinly sketched for the requisite third-act catharsis to fully blossom. At one confusing point you’re apt to wonder whether a climactic ultimatum signals that there’s an hour left in the runtime or mere minutes, and once the movie decides for itself the writing turns clumsy, opting for narrative shorthand in an tear-seeking denouement that desperately needs more air to properly match the preceding story’s melody. Older audience members shouldn’t mind much; they’re apt to call their nieces, nephews and grandchildren a little sooner after watching “Encanto” all the same. Such is the Disney way.

"Encanto" is rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril. It releases in theaters Wednesday, and on Disney Plus Christmas Eve. 

Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo

Directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith

2021

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