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Encanto Movie Review

Encanto (2021) movie poster Encanto

Theatrical Release: November 24, 2021

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG

Directors: Byron Howard, Jared Bush

Writers: Charise Castro Smith, Jared Bush (story & screenplay); Byron Howard, Jason Hand, Nancy Kruse, Lin-Manuel Miranda (story)

Voice Cast: Stephanie Beatriz (Mirabel Madrigal), María Cecilia Botero (Abeula Alma Madrigal), John Leguizamo (Bruno Madrigal), Mauro Castillo (Félix Madrigal), Jessica Darrow (Luisa Madrigal), Angie Cepeda (Julieta Madrigal), Carolina Gaitán (Pepa Madrigal), Diane Guerrero (Isabela Madrigal), Wilmer Valderrama (Agustín Madrigal)


Over the past few years, all movie studios have embraced diversity like never before and seemingly none as much so as Walt Disney Studios. Most would declare this an agreeable and overdue evolution of the filmmaking industry, but there are still fine lines to navigate. For example, In the Heights, Warner Bros. Pictures' screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Latino-driven musical earlier this year, invited celebration until people objected to the lack of dark-skinned characters and Miranda had to apologize.
Disney invites a whole different level of scrutiny as the company with the most direct and extensive access to the most impressionable demographic: children. Admirably, the studio has long exposed the youngest generation to distant cultures. Alas, those depictions have often been filtered through the Eurocentric biases of fairy tales and pop culture. When the Disney Princesses first emerged as one of retail's most formidable brands, most of the princesses were white, something the company has addressed with movies like The Princess and the Frog and Moana.

As both a film critic and someone who recognizes the Disney animated feature as one of cinema's greatest and most enduring traditions, the company's use of foreign cultures in their storytelling introduces other concerns. Because for every Coco, the widely beloved Pixar film immersed in Mexico's Dia de Los Muertos lore, there have been a few that seem to prioritize avoiding cultural offense over using the medium to entertain and enrich. This is perhaps most noticeable on Disney's live-action remakes, which already face the disadvantage of having to top the perfection of our collective childhood memories. No groups boycotted or bemoaned 2019's Aladdin or 2020's Mulan, but do these movies do as much for any viewers as they do for the shareholders benefitting from their easy profits? The issue plagued Disney Animation's first release of 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon, whose Home on the Range-esque box office performance can only partially be chalked up to the pandemic and its concurrent release as a premium Disney+ stream. The fantasy adventure Raya had strong female characters and a respectful approach to Southeast Asian cultures but its mediocre and soon-forgotten storytelling didn't justify the effort it required to wrap your head around its cultural ideas.

Just weeks after Marvel's coolly-received Eternals opened in theaters and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hit Disney+, Encanto, the 60th entry in Disney Animation's official canon, reaches the big screen on Thanksgiving Eve, an historically potent time for moviegoing that has served the studio extremely well in the past. Encanto incorporates and celebrates another culture -- that of Colombia -- and it does so with an abundance of color and flavor, original songs by Miranda, and a 30-day window of theatrical exclusivity.

The heroine of Disney's "Encanto" is teenager Mirabel Madrigal, the only member of her family not gifted a special power by their enchanted house.

With a song of improbably tasteful exposition, Encanto establishes its premise, of a family living in the mountains of Colombia in the magical house from which the film takes its title. Since emerging inexplicably in a challenging time, the house has bestowed each of its residents, the Madrigals, with a great power. All but our protagonist Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), whose recent gifting ceremony proved to be puzzlingly uneventful, in contrast to her relatives, including sisters Luisa with the superhuman strength and Isabela who produces blooming flowers on command.
On the festive evening her young cousin is to get his gift, Mirabel discovers the Encanto might not be in the perfect condition her grandmother Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero) insists it is. In fact, the old house seems in danger of losing its magic and so too do all of the Madrigal family members.

Crediting six writers including Miranda, directors Byron Howard (Zootopia) and Jared Bush (a scribe on Zootopia and Moana), and co-director Charise Castro Smith, Encanto throws a lot of story and a multitude of characters at us. But unlike Raya, where staying invested was a challenge and struggle, this one makes following along easy and rewarding. The buoyant script does a remarkable job of juggling all these big personalities, from a shape-shifting young cousin who temporarily assumes the appearance of everyone else to Mirabel's mother whose baking heals all wounds, and not overwhelming the viewer. There's nothing belabored about the proceedings, which don't grind to a halt when Miranda's mostly infectious songs take the spotlight. There's also nothing overtly inauthentic or exploitative. It's hard to think of any American or foreign movie that has incorporated Colombia's culture and geography to this extent. Though it has been done with caution and care in part by individuals who descend from Puerto Rico and Cuba, there is great vitality and joy to it all that can easily get lost amidst efforts in which minimizing offense is the top priority. Encanto effortlessly employs the Spanish language as well as the colors, fashions, and traditions specific to Colombia. On its own, none of these qualities would elevate the film, but in service to a whimsical and captivating family fantasy narrative, they add welcome texture and individuality.

The story of family secrets and strained relationships does not hark back to any past entry in the Disney Animation canon. In fact, the closest kin may be Meet the Robinsons, that mostly forgotten time travel jaunt that marked an advance from the company's mid-Noughties nadir. Encanto is better than that film in just about every way and its lack of derivation is welcome and refreshing at a time when too many animated films from other studios seem either interchangeable and soulless or crassly commercial.

Disney's colorful and charming "Encanto" is full of fireworks, literal and otherwise.

Encanto seems poised to add another Academy Award for Best Animated Feature to Disney's packed mantle (most of which has been earned by Pixar efforts). Its two biggest contenders -- Pixar's Luca and Sony Pictures Animation's The Mitchells vs. The Machines -- both have the disadvantage of having largely been impossible to see on the big screen in North America, having been sent directly to Disney+ and Netflix, respectively, for mostly business reasons. Encanto is the first fully animated film I've seen in theaters in nearly two years and a necessary reminder of how powerful the medium can be in a cinema. This is a true feast of color and sound, one you will not fully appreciate should you wait the month or two for this to pop up on Disney+.

In theaters, Encanto is preceded by the hand-drawn animated short about parenting techniques among two different generations of raccoons that seems just as likely to snag an Academy Award nomination and maybe even a win as Encanto.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: West Side StorySpider-Man: No Way Home King Richard
From the Directors: Zootopia
Disney Animated Musicals: MoanaFrozenTangledFrozen IIThe Princess and the Frog

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Reviewed November 23, 2021.

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