It’s hard to imagine that 83 years, 11 months ago, Walt Disney pioneered animated films with his first, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a film that reflects on family, on wishes, on princesses, on desires, on fairy tale endings. For its sixtieth animated film comes Byron Howard and Jared Bush’s “Encanto,” now in cinemas.
“Encanto” is the story of the Madrigals, a family living in an enchanting town in the mountains of Colombia. The tale goes that the family is imbued with certain magical powers, except for the imperfect Mirabel, who is seen as the family’s outcast. Stephanie Beatriz voices the young Mirabel, who is all-too-well aware of her limitations but doesn’t see them as detrimental to the rest of the family.
Her mother, Julieta (Angie Cepeda), understanding her daughter’s plight, constantly shoos her into a corner, out of the way. Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is the epitome of perfection but lacks grace and compassion. At the same time, Luisa (Jessica Darrow) can literally move mountains (well, not literally, but you get the drift), and father Augustin (Wilmer Valderrama) quietly acquiesces to the remainder of the family, led by the matriarch, Abuela Alma.
Co-directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush create a brightly lit, multi-hued atmosphere reminiscent of the film’s culture. The opening act, which introduces the family and sets the stage for the oncoming threat, is lush, bold, and full of cultural exposition; I may not be of Latin descent, though I found my foot tapping and head swaying to the opening act, a beautiful sight to behold – the music captured my essence, calling to me like a siren buried in the mountains that surround the family compound. Co-scribes Bush and Charise Castro Smith opened up the film widely, introducing each character and the attributes that make them unique.
Even as events unfold, the story doesn’t hide – 84 years later, the same magical formula that defined “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is still felt today, only it is packaged differently. There’s nothing wrong with the film’s central thesis: that families need to trust each other, a lesson we can all take to heart. Thanks to the influences of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s participation in the writer’s room, the beats are lovely.
Rather uniquely, Madrigal stems from matrix, the Italian word for “womb,” extending into matricalis for “maternal” or “primitive,” into madrigale and on into carmen matricale for “simple song,” all of which equally applies to the characters, situations and, environment that are infused into “Encanto.” This leaves me wondering about Uncle Bruno, voiced by John Leguizamo, the best character in the film. The one character most audiences will probably be able to relate to outside of Mirabel.
Even in its darkest passages, which feature homages to “Indiana Jones,” Mirabel doesn’t stop until she’s had an answer to her questions, another aspect of the story reflecting life. At one point, the story does feel like it “asked and answered” its questions, only to continue to another logical conclusion. It does run a lean 99 minutes, and a familiarity emerges at the end, a welcome one, to be sure. Of recent animated films from Walt Disney Animation Studios (not to be confused with any of their other properties), “Encanto” enchants and delights in its fairy tale.
A year ago, amongst our locked-down global community, Pixar graced us with the outstanding “Soul;” families communed in front of their glowing boxes, brought together by a touching tale of life after death. Yet, a debate raged on about certain elements regarding that film that I do not share – even in lockdown, we still ardently opposed creative decisions that seemed to run against the nature of that story. With “Encanto,” Disney took the time to figure out the mechanics, and I’m sure this Thanksgiving holiday, as cinemas remain open, audiences will embrace “Encanto” for the song and siren it is.
Of the two animated films, Disney released this year, “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Encanto,” “Encanto” takes the cake for its simplistic rendition of the classic fairy tale. We’re not caught up in the trappings of the story itself but instead immersed in the culture that it exhibits.