Dir: Byron Howard, Jared Bush. Starring: Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero. U, 99 minutes.
The Disney canon is rife with chosen ones – lost princesses claiming the throne, outcasts discovering that they alone can save the day. The embittered will argue that these stories have turned generations of children into self-entitled brats. If that were true, I don’t think so many of us would be riddled with doubt and insecurity. Encanto, Disney’s 60th animated feature and one of its countless musicals, not only flips the traditional narrative, but speaks directly to those who’ve struggled to see themselves as the hero of their own story.
Mirabel (In the Heights’s Stephanie Beatriz, loveable from the very first word she speaks) is the only member of the Madrigal family not blessed with magical powers. Flowers don’t bloom wherever she steps as they do for her older sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero); when she’s in a bad mood, a rain cloud won’t spontaneously appear over her head as it will for Tía Pepa (Carolina Gaitán). These gifts are bestowed upon the Madrigal family by the enchanted house they share in the Colombian mountains. Known as an “encanto”, the house and its surrounding town sprouted out of the ground when their matriarch, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), needed it most.
The word “encanto” can be used to describe many things – people, incantations, traditions – but it refers here to the refuge Abuela Alma found after she was forced out of her previous home by unnamed forces. That won’t mean much to the majority of the audience sitting down to watch Encanto, but it’s an unexpectedly clear-cut metaphor for the political conflicts Colombia has faced over the past five decades, which have resulted in mass internal displacement amongst its people.
The film’s cultural specificity stretches far beyond mere aesthetic or linguistic nods. It’s visible all over, from its loving depiction of buñuelos – a kind of fritter made from fried dough – to its embracing of magical realism (popularised through the work of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez) and its wide variety of different skin tones. The latter means Encanto avoids the criticism faced by the recent In the Heights, which was accused of colourism over its lack of dark-skinned Latin characters. No doubt to the film’s benefit is Disney’s recent policy of working with a “cultural trust” in order to ensure authenticity. So is the hiring of co-director and co-writer Charise Castro Smith, teamed up here with Disney animation veterans Byron Howard and Jared Bush. It results in Encanto having a richness that exceeds many of its modern counterparts. Think of it as everything we expect from the studio – beauty, warmth, humour, emotion – just with a little bit more.
Encanto isn’t centred on some generic message about the importance of family, but delves into the very dynamics of it. Mirabel’s mother, Julieta (Angie Cepeda), can literally heal with her cooking. Her other sister, Luisa (Jessica Darrow), is relied upon not just for her physical strength, but for her emotional resilience, too. The lesson for Mirabel isn’t simply that she, in her own way, is as special as the rest, but that the mere act of putting people on a pedestal robs them of their humanity. On the night that the youngest Madrigal, Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers), is due to receive his power as part of a special ceremony, Mirabel discovers a terrible secret about the house’s magic. It pushes her to seek out her exiled Tío Bruno (John Leguizamo), her uncle. What she then learns changes how she sees both herself and her siblings.
The idea for Encanto emerged out of Disney’s partnership with composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, while he was writing songs for 2016’s Moana. But there’s an interesting shift in his musical approach here. Mirabel’s big number, “Waiting on a Miracle”, doesn’t quite have the instant pop catchiness of Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go”, or any of the typical Disney princess songs, but it’s also more intricate and delicate in its construction. Many of the tracks in Encanto share more in common with Miranda’s work on In the Heights or Hamilton, where melodies will weave in and out of each other to reach a dizzying, final climax. The approach also allows for some of the most distinctive and imaginatively conceived animated sequences since 1997’s Hercules. Encanto bursts with colour and abstract flights of fantasy – in fact, when Luisa sings about her many feats of might, she imagines herself standing face-to-face with the mythical Cerberus.
It’s a touch ironic, then, that in Encanto’s final stretch, the filmmakers choose to throw in a reference to Frozen’s “Let it Go”, the unstoppable earworm that has overshadowed so much of Disney’s recent output. Encanto has confidently helped steer Disney animation into its future, not merely in terms of representation but in the sophistication of its storytelling. So isn’t it funny that Disney still couldn’t quite shake off its past?