Once upon a time, Disney ventured to the mountains of Columbia to tell a fable so farfetched that one might be mistaken for doubting the claims that this feature didn’t spring fully formed from a fairytale. Encanto is the story of a 15-year-old girl who loves her family and wholeheartedly celebrates their talents while living without a gift of her own; the tall tale of a selfless teen!
Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) is one of THE Magical Madrigals, a celebrated family who live in an enchanted casita at the heart of a verdant Columbian valley where a miraculous new home for a displaced mother and her babies sprang up in the shadow of tragedy and its next generation are using their blessings to serve the town beyond the casita walls.
Mirabel’s Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero) takes great pride in her family’s extraordinary talents and their lives of service. The door dedication ceremony when each child turns five and receives their magic gift is a moment she cherishes. Alma remains haunted by the day Mirabel’s own door crumbled and fell and, on the eve of a new ceremony, tensions are high.
Mirabel’s generosity of spirit allows her to celebrate the gift day of her young cousin Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) despite the pain it evokes. She swallows her regret to help him overcome his fears but soon faces a more perilous battle; to save her precious home and open her family’s eyes to the precarious position they are in before everything they believe and love crumbles and falls.
Encanto is helmed by Zootopia’s Byron Howard and Jared Bush and co-directed and co-written by Charise Castro Smith; the first Latina woman to take on such a role. It is long past time for Disney to understand the importance of specificity in the stories they tell rather than lifting ‘flavour’ and style from a culture. Bringing onboard someone who could explore with sensitivity the lived reality of the country, culture and people being depicted is a positive step.
This enchanting feature is certainly more inclusive in its representation of place, face and voice; including characters with darker skin tones and incorporating two Spanish language songs shows progress. However, the most refreshing thing is the sense that this is not the perspective of A Columbian Family but THIS Columbian family. The Madrigals are individuals and the narrative allows each their own autonomy and motivations.
Mirabel’s mother (Angie Cepeda) heals with her cooking, tía Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can turn a sunny day stormy if the mood takes her, cousin Dolores (Adassa) can hear a pin drop across a crowded casita. Even those closest to Mirabel feel elevated far above her; eldest sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) is superhero strong and Isabela (Diane Guererro) so irritatingly Insta-perfect that flowers literally bloom wherever she steps.
Autonomy is something Abuela Alma will not allow. Consumed by everything she is not, Mirabel fails to realise that the family members endowed with magical gifts when their illuminated doors flew open find themselves similarly imprisoned by the expectations of those roles. The focus on their abilities entirely eclipses the many other facets of their personalities. Even before the candle threatens to sputter out they are each, in their way, burning low.
Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) knew something was amiss with the Madrigal miracle and the secret caused him to flee. However, the black sheep of the clan didn’t wander far from the fold and his history and quirky charms provide both one of Encanto’s most hip-swaying numbers in the form of We Don’t Talk About Bruno and the key to unlocking the secret that will save the casita and safeguard the Madrigals’ future.
The dazzling detail of the animation – jampacked with butterflies, blooms, wildlife and the chaos of family life – is mirrored by the colourful soundtrack. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s trademark lyrical dexterity particularly shines in Jessica Darrow’s Surface Pressure while Sebastián Yatra’s Dos Oruguitas is achingly poignant. And the pizazz of Miranda’s pinballing lyrics is more than matched by the vivacious beauty of Germaine’s Franco’s score; a whirling cumbia dancing us from scene to scene.
Encanto is fuelled by magic but it is not the fare of Disney past, eschewing romance and sparkle to probe the weight of grief and expectation instead. Mirabel is an engaging tour guide to take littler audience members through the twists and turns of the plot and a plucky heroine for tweens to admire. There is peril but it is delicately handled and ultimately the tears cried will be happy ones. Encanto is a joy and its light deserves to be seen far and wide.
Encanto opens in UK cinemas on November 24th