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Encanto

Featuring infectious tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this lively Disney musical is a gorgeous and heartfelt love letter to Latin American culture.
By Sarah Ward
December 02, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 02, 2021
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UPDATE, December 23, 2021: Encanto is currently screening in Australian cinemas, and will be available to stream via Disney+ from December 25.

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Five years after Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney first teamed up on an animated musical with the catchiest of tunes, aka Moana, they're back at it again with Encanto. To viewers eager for another colourful, thoughtful and engaging film — and another that embraces a particular culture with the heartiest of hugs, and is all the better for it — what can the past decade's most influential composer and biggest entertainment behemoth say except you're welcome? Both the Hamilton mastermind and the Mouse House do what they do best here. The songs are infectious, as well as diverse in style; the storyline follows a spirited heroine challenging the status quo; and the imagery sparkles. Miranda and Disney are both in comfortable territory, in fact — formulaic, sometimes — but Encanto never feels like they're monotonously beating the same old drum.

Instruments are struck, shaken and otherwise played in the film's soundtrack, of course, which resounds with energetic earworms; the salsa beats of 'We Don't Talk About Bruno' are especially irresistible, and the Miranda-penned hip hop wordplay that peppers the movie's tunes is impossible to mentally let go. Spanning pop, ballads and more, all those songs help tell the tale of the Madrigals, a close-knit Colombian family who've turned generational trauma into magic. This is still an all-ages-friendly Disney flick, so there are limits to how dark it's willing to get; however, that Encanto fills its frames with a joyous celebration of Latin America and simultaneously recognises its setting's history of conflict is hugely significant. It also marks Walt Disney Animation Studios' 60th feature — dating back to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — but its cultural specificity (depictions of Indigenous, Afro Latino and Colombian characters of other ethnicities included) is its bigger achievement.

The focal point of their jungle-surrounded village, the Madrigals are the local version of superheroes. They live in an enchanted home, complete with a magical candle that's burned for three generations, and they each receive special powers when they come of age. The latter wasn't the case for Encanto's heroine Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), though, and that absence of exceptional abilities has left the bespectacled teen feeling like an outcast. Plus, with her young cousin Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers, #BlackAF) now going through the ceremony, Mirabel's perceived failings linger afresh in everyone's minds. But then la casita, as their supernatural home is known, starts cracking — the flame begins to flicker as well, as everyone's powers waver with it — and it looks like only its most ordinary inhabitant can save the day.

Encanto doesn't refer to the Madrigals by any term you'd hear in a Marvel movie, but the imprint of Disney's hit franchise remains evident. Thankfully, director Byron Howard (Tangled), and co-writers/co-helmers Charise Castro Smith (Sweetbitter) and Jared Bush (Zootopia) have sprinkled in a few fun abilities — because mixing up a template sits high among the feature's powers, even when those generic underlying pieces can still be gleaned. Accordingly, one of Mirabel's sisters, Luisa (Jessica Darrow, Feast of the Seven Fishes), is super strong, but the other, Isabela (Diane Guerrero, Doom Patrol), makes flowers blossom with her loveliness. Similarly, while their aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán, The Greatest Showman) controls the weather, their mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda, Jane the Virgin) heals through cooking.

In one of the most surprising moves ever made by all-ages film, Encanto also nods to Gabriel García Márquez and his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (superheroes, Disney not-quite-princesses and Colombian magical realism, together at last!). It works because Encanto meaningfully ponders inherited woes and the weight of family expectations, and grounds them in past struggles and the cycles they kickstart. That's the Madrigals' story, as tied to Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero, Nurses). And, while delivered in bright and bouncy packaging, it includes noting how the pressure to excel and enchant has caused fissures. Indeed, due to her uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo, Playing with Fire) — who no one is supposed to discuss, as the aforementioned track trills — Mirabel isn't the only Madrigal wrongly deemed to have let the family down.

Vibrant, rich, tender, sincere and lively (the songs, pace and lush computer-generated animation just keep earning the term): add in familiar, still, and that's Encanto. Perhaps it's an apt combination, considering that finding beauty in the seemingly standard is one of the movie's key messages. Or, maybe it's just what was always going to happen when the Mouse House mashed up such recognisable parts — there's plenty about Mirabel's tale that's pure Disney 101, too, and we've all enjoyed the childhood viewing to prove it — into a gorgeous and heartfelt love letter to Colombian culture. Either way, the movie remains a modest charmer and, with Beatriz's yearning yet resilient vocal performance worlds away from Rosa Diaz's growl, and her co-stars helping to make the picture melodic several times over, it's winningly cast as well. 

Encanto is also the fourth feature bearing Miranda's fingerprints in 2021, after In the Heights, fellow animated effort Vivo and his filmmaking directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom!. Thanks to both his and Disney's involvement, it'll likely take the reverse route traversed by two of those titles and, The Lion King and Mary Poppins-style, end up on a stage sometime in the future. Such a production would inherently lack the creative cinematography that assists in making Encanto such a visual treat — especially in the imaginative journey that Mirabel takes in the movie's second half — but it'd dazzle as a live-action show anyway. One of the film's other joys is the fact that it's poised, fashioned, animated and sung like it's treading the boards already, and that why that's the case — why it exudes big musical energy, even when it feels like its threatening to overdo it at first — is cannily baked into its narrative.

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