Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Having grown up with Disney all my life, I have to give it credit for this valuable asset. With every film it presented, it used the opportunity every time to explore different, arguably unexplored aspects of the globe we may never have been familiar with before. Despite Disney getting its head-start with fairytales of European origin, it had since gone to all other corners of the globe, including Australia with The Rescuers Down Under, China with Mulan, Africa with The Lion King and Tarzan, the Middle East with Aladdin, and even our country with Oliver and Company and Lilo and Stitch. Pixar joined the bandwagon, too, exploring Mexico with Coco and, again, our country with Inside Out and Soul.
The story centered on a young woman named Mirabel Madriga, who, regretfully, was the only one in her family who was born without any special gifts. Her family was comprised of individuals who each had a unique gift to harness for their needs. It included her cousin, Antonio, who can talk to animals, her other cousin, Camilo, who can shapeshift into whoever he saw, her two older sisters – Luisa, who had supersized strength, and Isabella, who can conjure flowers – and her aunts Dolores and Pepa. Mirabel's family inherited such unique gifts because the house in which they lived was magical; it had the power to choose what gift to bestow upon those in the family who was next in line for it.
As content as Mirabel was with her family, her lack of special powers in a family filled to the brim with unique special powers started to irk her. However, one day, Mirabel started noticing some cracks burrowing their way throughout the house. Not only would those have put the house in physical danger, but it would've threatened to extinguish a secret candle that Mirabel's abuela, Alma, held onto for many years. And the cracks were not the result of an earthquake that struck because there wasn't one. So, Mirabel had to unravel the mystery of the cracks spreading throughout the house while also taking the chance to discover a hidden room in the house. Its former inhabitant was named Bruno, and his name, reputation, and even his relations within the family evoked bad memories and were forbidden from even being questioned.
Now Mirabel uncovered one eye-opening discovery after another; what caused the cracks? Why was she born with no special gift? Who was Bruno? And why did her family shun him for so long?
There was one thing I found peculiarly candid about this movie: when I first saw the trailer for this movie, it reminded me a lot of Coco. I think it mostly had to do with how it was colorful, energetic and emphasized its focus on music, only in Encanto’s case, it's a musical. It took place in a Latin American country, also like Coco, and it centered, now that I think about it, a family who forbade anyone from bringing up their missing relative. In Coco's case, Miguel wanted to know more about his grandfather. But while Encanto may carry similarities to Coco, this is still a different beast from it.
For starters, this was hands-down one of the most energetic animated movies I've ever seen from Disney.
I can attribute part of that to the animation. From one angle, it was just gorgeous to look at. All the characters felt as real, alive, and lively as ever, and the surroundings all felt immersive, providing a taste of Colombian culture within its more contemporary storytelling. The environments burst out with the luscious forestry and mountainous caps that we recognize from South America, and the vistas and villas expressed a generally warm, adobe-like presentation.
I must also mention one massive aspect of the animation that I found genuinely stunning: the house itself. The characters called it 'Casita', which may have been the hippest, liveliest, most lavish, and elaborate house I've ever seen. One thing that made the house such a sight to behold, besides its magical powers, lied more in how alive it felt, in a way. It constantly moved around its tiles, shelves, windowpanes, doors, stairs, even its railings and had them moving in a way that helped Casita do its job or help the people living within it. Half the time, the house moved them around to express or react to something. One example was when Mirabel asked the house how to save the magic, and the end of the bedroom, with the window, lifted its tiles from both sides. That gave off an illusion of a person uncertainly raising their arms as if to say, 'How should I know?'
The last time I saw a house feel alive was back in 2006 when I saw the animated film Monster House. Obviously, it was alive; it had a face, with the doors being its mouth and the upper windows being its eyes. But no, the house here in Encanto was different. It was more in the same league as the Magic Carpet from Aladdin regarding how much of a personality it gave off without a single facial expression. And, also like the Magic Carpet, the movements of its inanimate objects segued into whatever expressions it meant to give, even on the inside. Even with its most minor furniture, the quirks expressed by Casita made it almost feel like a character in and of itself. And, the movement of its parts played a significant role in the movie's fast-paced energy.
The characters' movements also contributed to the movie's sense of energy. At its brightest moments, many of the characters moved in an over-the-top way to a point where if you tried to keep up with them, you would've felt some slight exhaustion. Sometimes, I even noticed the speed in the characters' speaking patterns, which included fast-speaking expositions before they ground to a slow but embarrassed halt. I caught that from some of Disney's films lately, but I thought it made the sense of humor that Encanto already started strong with feel even stronger.
And speaking of the animation, another particular asset of the movie that left an impression on me, besides Casita, was the design of the main character, Mirabel.
Over the past several movies from Disney, I usually saw the main hero or heroine and recalled catching onto some likenesses they had with some of the other main characters who came before. For example, Moana and Raya both felt like they were in their late teens and shared the same facial features and skin color. Likewise, Rapunzel, Elsa, and Anna felt like they were around their early 20s and shared the same body type. But, of course, that was offset by such characters as Ralph, Hiro, Judy Hopps, and so forth.
With Mirabel, for all the likenesses she may have shared with characters like Raya or Moana, there's something about her look that just caught my eye. The big, thick, wavy hair. The glasses. The clothes. Her traditional flair. Her Latin American heritage. Even her body type. Add to that the fact that she looked like she was in her mid-20s, if not late 20s. Those all felt like a refreshing sense of getting to know someone new, and again, the movie did an excellent job of expanding Disney's creative horizons while ensuring the opportunity to explore them with the new characters accompanying them.
Which reminds me, how were the characters? Well, they felt like the characters from Raya and the Last Dragon. The main character had some compelling quirks with her, but the supporting characters each felt so memorable and unique that I felt a little bummed that they didn't have more time to be fleshed out. Mirabel's younger cousin Antonio had just been nominated to be granted his powers by Casita and, after some hesitation, found his gift as the animal whisperer. There's another character named Camilo, who can shapeshift into anyone he wanted, occasionally as a joke on someone. So, that made him the family prankster. There's an aunt named Pepa, who always had a rain cloud over her head whenever she felt super agitated and needed to calm down, ease up, and keep herself from being soaked. There's Isabella, the alleged perfect girl in the family who can make flowers bloom but had some potential self-esteem issues. Plus, she was to be engaged to a handsome guy she barely knew, so that may have had something to do with it. Then there's Luisa, Luisa’s big sister who was all muscle, strong enough to lift an entire church just on her own. They all reminded me of the Seven Dwarfs or the Loud sisters; they all complemented the main character's journey but were scene-stealers and eclectic in their personalities and identities.
Frankly, I didn't find Mirabel's mother and father, Julieta and Agustin, as memorable or engaging as the others in the movie. I think it may have been because they didn't participate in the film or make as much of a splash as the others did.
Now, the following three characters, I believe, carried much of the movie on their own. Let's start with the main lead, Mirabel. Outside of the refreshing design palette, Mirabel felt like a modest, unrestrained, slightly awkward daughter in the family. But she was so charming and so engaging in her normalcy that it made her feel special regardless. She made the movie with her wit and communications with her family members, and most of all, she was made interesting by her supposed lack of a unique magical gift. It made her feel more like an outsider, someone you could identify with easily. She was engaging enough just for that quality alone. But when she discovered that there may have been a family conspiracy going on, the discoveries she made and how they would've affected her relationship with her family and her reputation within it felt stealthily exciting. One discovery she made that made her so compelling was a vision she discovered – in the form of a broken, green holographic plaque, I mean – that showed that she could have either saved or dismantled Casita. Now, why was that? Suddenly, that made her role in the story, and the family, feel extra juicy.
The next character, Mirabel's abuela, Alma, felt like a sophisticated and dignified, if also slightly mysterious, character. She watched over everyone in the house and ensured that everything that occurred in the home went as she expected them to. Sometimes, though, it made her look pretty stern, especially with Mirabel, who constantly questioned her about why she didn't get a gift even though Alma told her she was as unique as everyone else. She also had a personal priority to keep the magical candle alight so it wouldn't have gone out anytime soon. Alma knew that the candle was the only thing keeping the magic of both her family and Casita alive, and she had to keep it safe and active as long as possible. Later, the movie showed that before they had Casita, she had to escape with her husband, her three children – Pepa, Bruno, and Julieta – and a herd of friends and neighbors after their village was plundered and set on fire by an invading band of marauders on horseback. The first time I saw them, I thought those men may have been Spanish conquistadors. I don't know, were Latin American countries more hostile against each other back in the day? Anyway, those marauders murdered Alma's husband after he tried to hold them off, and she found herself nestling in a river in despair with all her fellow villagers. There, she found the miracle that would have granted her and her future generations their house and magical gifts. Seeing someone so fragile, committed, dignified, and yet easy to let herself get too controlling made her feel more rounded as a character and even an authority figure.
Going off track here for a minute, one of the most prominent aspects of the movie that I was a little confused about was how Alma and her family discovered the magic they harnessed when they were at the river. How did the magic even exist? The origins of that magic were surprisingly not made clear enough here. I guess it meant to show the possibility of magic occurring in the least likely of places or the least likely of forms. Nonetheless, that probably could've been dived into more for the movie’s sake.
And the third character I'm about to speak of, he's rife with spoilers. So, skip ahead if you haven't seen the movie yet.
The third character that I feel gave the movie its intrigue was Bruno. The first time he was mentioned, the family urged Mirabel or anyone not to talk about him, as if he had betrayed them in some way a long time back. But for all the buildup surrounding him and how much of a treacherous character the rumors made him out to be, he turned out to have been a physically and socially awkward, very sheltered man. He was a long-lost uncle of Mirabel who was shunned and turned away from the rest of his family. Why was that? Because he saw visions of Mirabel and foretold her potential role, though ambiguous, with Casita. And it terrified Alma and the family so much that they secluded him in the hopes that Mirabel would not have known this and not inadvertently played a role in dismantling the house and their family's magical talents. So, Bruno felt like a decent but lost man who wanted to do what he felt was right but was turned away for that instead.
The voice acting in this film was also excellent. It nailed down the Latin American inflections of the characters while still being unique enough to express each of their characteristics. Stephanie Beatriz hammered in the modesty and social awkwardness for Mirabel. She allowed her character to flip-flop from expressing the insecurities and frustrations of being an outsider in the family to seeping into the tender loving care she felt deep down for her family despite all the sour grapes she held against them. Maria Cecilia Botero just oozed with sophistication for Alma. It allowed her to come across with a level of authority, complexity, and commitment, to a point where each discovery that unfolded left us curious as to how she would've responded in any such event. John Leguizamo as Bruno was just a showman for balanced humor and poignancy. His unworldly expressions and reactions made him look almost more incompetent but humorous than Mirabel. At the same time, his more tender moments hit home that his unusual behavior resulted from being shut away from his family for so long, and he wanted to be part of the family again. Jessica Darrow, I thought, injected a surprising amount of goofiness in such a buff character as Luisa. She could've been brash when she wanted to, tough-talking as she wanted to, but also as mopey as she wanted to be, especially when Luisa was fearful she may have lost her strength. Adassa also helped her character, Mirabel's aunt Dolores, come across as occasionally humorous within her more soft-spoken role in this movie. And the actress who played Pepa, Carolina Gaitán, felt equally zany and cartoonishly short-tempered every time her character had to tolerate anything that drove her remotely nuts.
The story, to be honest, felt a lot more complicated than you would generally expect from Disney. It's more than just Mirabel being born in a family with magical powers, only for her to be the only one without powers. The rest of the film had Mirabel catching things that she felt were off, like the cracks in the house, which her family initially dismissed, or how there was more to her family and their background than met the eye. And there was also Bruno, who, as I said, was mentioned as if he betrayed the family a long time ago. And yet, when Bruno came forth, his seclusion came forth because of the visions he had of Mirabel potentially destroying the Madriga family and household or being their savior. But then, things got more heated when it turned out that it was not only the family who relied on the magic from the house or especially the candle. The entire town where they dwelled and the community within depended on them for their services, which stemmed from their magical talents. It could be hard to narrow down into more straightforward descriptions outside the first sentence, as I laid out to you. But believe me, when you get into the movie's storytelling rhythms, soon everything would've started falling into place, and in a way that would retrospectively have become easier to digest.
And speaking of rhythm, I should also talk about the music in this movie. It was one of the chief reasons why this movie felt so fast-paced. Lin-Manuel Miranda did the songs, and they all honed the vocal talents and character strengths to their advantage, putting it all on display in a way that felt flashy, colorful, and equivalent to being in a wild Latin American party. Having had some hits in his repertoire before, including Hamilton, In the Heights, and even Moana, Miranda knew how to balance out expositions, color, and energy to the songs so they would've served the characters and story in an exciting way. Come to think of it, I felt so entranced by the musicality and energy of the songs that I feel tempted to give the movie a repeat viewing to see if I can catch any details within the songs that I may have missed the first time. They went by that fast for me. And while some aspects of the songs did outweigh some others, they nonetheless kept me attentive all the way through.
On top of that, the movie's idea of being a musical felt unique. What I mean is, with most musical films by Disney, they generally felt like they were 70% speaking and 30% singing. This movie, however, felt like I witnessed a split half between the two, a 50-50 pairing. So, for that reason, I thought it made it feel more like a hard-core musical, even by comparison. But once again, a big part of that came from Lin-Manuel Miranda, for he had an extensive theater record, anyway.
I'm also beginning to have a soft spot for its message concerning the magic. And that would be that as irresistible as it may be to have extra unique gifts that each individual can use to make significant contributions for themselves and society, some other things are just as special, magic or no magic. Sometimes, even the most basic, simple virtues are as crucial as the showier talents. Without giving anything away, I came away feeling like the movie expressed, through Mirabel, that the idea of togetherness and community are great strengths to exhibit.
It may not be the first time Disney dived into South American themes and topics, for they already did that with Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, and The Emperor's New Groove. But Encanto genuinely felt like it was dripping in that rich, textured, and irresistible Latino flavor that continuously drew you in thanks to its characters, story, songs, and setting. The title 'Encanto' is fitting because outside of it referring to the house, Encanto, in English, means charm. And that's what this is: a charming but also energetic extravaganza as only Disney can provide.
Simply put, Encanto will leave you enchanted.
My Rating: A low A-
*SPOILER ALERT* At the end of the movie, after Casita had toppled over, the house was eventually restructured and put back together. But, what I like about it is that the characters didn't just say they believe in family and boom, the magic came back. The family and community actually worked together to rebuild the house. It took time, effort, and a lot of working hands to make it happen. And only then had the magic returned to the family and house. That felt more realistic to me.
Update (Dec. 10, 2021) Well, guess what? I stand corrected. Mirabel was not in her mid-20s like I thought. According to director Jared Bush, she was really 15 years old. Wow! She definitely looked older than that to me.