The topic of family in Disney movies is a complicated sell. I don’t necessarily disagree with themes that say family is important, family will always be there for you, seeking a family makes life worth it, etc. But rewind…look back at a key word there: “Necessarily“. Families are, by nature, as I said, complicated. It’s nice to believe this mindset will solve most of life’s problems, but let’s be honest. Do you know ANYONE that has a perfect family? No, I assure you you do not.
Movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tangled feature villains who are the protagonist’s family, and how difficult it is to stand up to them when they are clearly being evil (Ironically, Disney didn’t do that with Hercules.) Then movies like Brother Bear, Lilo and Stitch, and Meet the Robinsons were about how family is the be all, end all. But like I said, with some exceptions, real families are not nearly as black and white. Probably the only good thing I could ever say about Chicken Little is that as horrible as Buck was to his son, at least the movie wanted to depict him as well-meaning and he thought he was doing his best, even if he was colossally misguided. The fact is, this is often how families operate. Everyone does what they think is right, even if it is spiteful or hurtful, but rarely do it to actively hurt anyone else intentionally. So could a movie accurately depict the trauma and turmoil of a family who love each other, believe they love each other…but not see the toxicity right in front of them?
Much like Frozen nine years ago (NINE YEARS!?!? WHAT THE FU-), Encanto had little buildup. Of course, Disney couldn’t spend much on marketing, considering how few people could go see it in theaters with Omicron and Delta variants of COVID still ripping the world asunder. Then it was released to theaters with minimal fanfare November 24th in the US theaters. I heard online reviews praise it, so I took it in stride. I’m not about to go to the movies anytime soon (Yes, even for Spider-Man: No Way Home!), so I shrugged and went about my way and hardly thought about. Then one day…pop! On Disney+! Really? No premier access charge? No three month wait? Well…okay…might as well…
And were those few critics right? Well, muscle your way to this memorable, mesmeric, musical masterpiece featuring the mighty Madrigals in Disney’s Encanto!
The Plot: The Madrigals are the head of a small but thriving community dubbed “The Encanto” in the rolling hills of Colombia. Run by their Abuela (María Cecilia Botero), and thanks to a magic candle, each family-born family member is blessed with a magical ability: super strength, growing flowers, baking goods that heal, emotions that change weather, super hearing, etc. The family use their powers to help their community grow and thrive. But fifteen-year-old Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) mysteriously was not given a gift, but still she tries to be a part of the family, sore point as it may be for her.
During her cousin’s ceremony, Mirabel is alarmed their autonomous house, affectionately referred to as “Casita”, starts developing massive cracks and the candle starts dimming. While everyone denies there’s a problem, Mirabel is more determined to investigate why Casita is breaking and why her sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) is losing her power. Maybe it might have something to do with Bruno (John Leguizamo), the mysterious uncle who disappeared a decade ago that no one wants to talk about.
How’s the writing?: This is the kind of story that could have easily gone sideways or heavy-handed if the writers weren’t careful. This is a film with a plethora of characters, most of whom only get a handful of lines. There are magical properties that have only mild explanations as to why they happen the way they do. People do bad things, but to say there are villainous or evil is far from the truth. They don’t use these powers to fight evil or anything but…well, just help people. And yet…everything about this was handled masterfully.
What really impressed me was the subtle ways the story would divert from standard clichés and plot points. Mirabel didn’t have a gift, but we are never given a reason why nor is she given one at the end, and better still, no “You really had a magic gift in you the whole time!”. All of her family have vibrant personalities and each line and action speaks volumes to the point where fans now want separate stories for each of them. In fact, the Madrigals as a whole make this movie radiant. Even the ending doesn’t get a magical undoing, but takes a unified effort of everyone over a period of time (montage notwithstanding) to repair what had been broken.
I think back to Meet the Robinsons, another Disney animated feature that headlined an eccentric family. While they were obviously a collection of blood-related people, I never got the sense they were really a family so much as a collection of eclectic weirdos. never mind I can barely remember their names. The Madrigals, on the other hand, felt like a real family. They loved each other, clearly, but the tensions between them were relatable. Luisa may be super strong, but metaphorically, she is expected to carry the family burdens. Isabela is seen as the perfect child and arrogant and selfish, when really, she is just performing the expected duties as laid out for her. Gifts or not, these scenarios are highly relatable, and watching Mirabel’s sisters struggle to keep their stress under wraps is perfection unto itself. Add on top of that, they do love each other, clearly…but because Mirabel is seen as “not special”, her family unintentionally condescends to her or ignore her. In turn, Mirabel loves her family and does everything she can to help, but she can’t pretend that not having a gift isn’t a bit of a touchy subject for her.
Does it give the feels?: I’m genuinely surprised the movie hits as often and as hard as it does in a variety of ways. The family has a variety of encounters with each other that feel genuine and vivid, and that’s what keeps the viewer engaged. Antonio is a cute sweetheart who bonds very closely with Mirabel. Isabela and Mirabel heal their relationship in a very profound way. Her father, Augustín, clearly values his daughter’s feelings and is the only one to confront Abuela about it. Even when she finally meets Bruno, and we find out why he disappeared, we see the depth of tragedy and heartache in him. Really, you’d kind of have to go out of your way to not feel the feels on display here. Heart and soul is the foundation of everything onscreen.
Who makes it worth it?: I agree with many that the individual members of the Madrigal family are all inherently interesting. Yes, Encanto is Mirabel’s story, but each of her relatives has their own perspectives, their own struggles. Luisa yearning for a break from the heavy lifting, yet hinging her self-worth on it. Camilo, the shapeshifter, as a cheeky prankster, who walks a fine line between helping others yet serving his own interests. Pepa struggling to keep her emotions in check to prevent meteorological mishaps. Regardless, the one family member I was drawn to more than any other was the one no one wanted to talk about: Bruno.
I swear, this role was written purely for Leguizamo. A middle-aged man with a goofball personality, possibly even a touch neurodivergent, but a huge heart, even though his awkward demeanor can come across as off-putting and a bit weird. Even though we watch a whole song where the community sings about how his visions seemingly caused various misfortunes, we meet the man who has lived a decade in isolation within the walls of Casita, with only rats keeping him company. He has clear social interaction issues, but clearly he doesn’t mean to be hurtful, never mind he is burdened by a gift that brings him upsetting revelations and in return, blame from even his own family.
The character has so much inherent warmth and humor that by spending a few minutes with him, you can’t help but feel for him and his pathos, as he awkwardly rambles, knocks on wood, or pretends to be “Hernando” or “Jorge” to pass the time.
Best quality provided: You know it, I know it. It’s the smooing music.
Like I said before in my Hall of Presidents essay, I haven’t seen Hamilton. Nor have I seen In the Heights or Vivo. I just don’t have much time these days to watch them. Still, I am familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in on Moana and as an actor, his stints on both House (As Alvie in season 6) and of course, as Fenton Crackshell-Cabrera in the DuckTales reboot.
But I’m not gonna mince words: these songs slap. “The Family Madrigal” is BRILLIANT in establishing whom is related to whom, who has what gift, and Mirabel’s unyielding love and appreciation for her family. It’s like “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast but with energy, but doing that lame, unfunny scene from Meet the Robinsons scene where Lewis is quizzed on the family.
“What Else Can I Do?” is stunning as a turning point by restructuring Isabela and Mirabel’s relationship, but also an explosion of color and vigor as the picture-perfect golden child is finally discovering that being not-so-perfect could actually be fun.
“Surface Pressure” is a bonkers extravaganza about the strain Luisa suffers as the strong member of the family and how her self-worth and identity hinge entirely on how much she can handle, letting it all go in one bombastic number, peppered with hilarious sight gags.
And yeah, let’s talk about it: “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a MASTERPIECE. The overlapping dialogue and lyrics evoke the characters’ personalities in fluid perfection. Félix and Pepa have their own verse, followed by Dolores, whose verse changes musical styling, the Camilo springs in to change the tempo yet again about how evil Bruno is…and is just keeps evolving and shifting! Isabela gets her own solo that is vaguely haunting as her betrothed comes to Casita, and as the music builds…boom! The beat drops all over again as everyone sets the table, singing in rounds over each other. Even from a visual standpoint, it displays Miranda’s keen musical theater background and how evocative it can be and even amplified with animation. I love the subtle touches, like Mirabel following the dancing in each verse unintentionally, the swooping camera among the townsfolk, and best of all, watching Bruno slink around and even bop to Dolores’ verse in the background.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” beat out “Let it Go”? Yeah, I totally believe it.
What could have been improved: When I watched Charlie Brown cartoons and read Peanuts comic strips as a kid, my heart always went out to good ol’ Charlie Brown. I mean, he was just doing his best in a world constantly cruel and unforgiving to him through really no fault of his own, which I suppose was the point, but it still hurt. Similarly, I understood this was the point of Mirabel’s story, but it still hurt to see people like Abuela, Isabela, and Luisa brush her off and minimize her contributions. Thankfully, it wasn’t as black-and-white as them malevolently dismissing her, more like a realistic take of just…not putting too much thought toward her at all, which in and of itself was cruel and hostile. Again, that was the whole point of the movie, but what I’m getting at is…I kinda wish Mirabel has someone with her as she investigated the mystery.
Stephanie Beatriz did a fantastic job as Mirabel. She became a character so profoundly nuanced I can’t describe articulately while still being a vivid, defined character. It was great to see just how deeply she cared for her family and how far she was willing to go to get answers. But I kinda hoped she didn’t talk to herself so much. Granted, this only played up the inherent comedy in her character, but aside from a few minutes with a toucan (with a vocal performance by his third bird in a non-caucasian setting after Hei Hei and 2019’s Aladdin, Alan Tudyk), Mirabel spends most of her time alone and talking to herself when she isn’t stuck in awkward conversations with others.
Of course, like all good movies, it leaves me with the greatest complaint of all: it wasn’t enough and I want more. Seriously, a series of shorts on Disney+, please!
Verdict: Encanto is Meet the Robinsons after Lin-Manuel Miranda took the script back to his work station for two weeks, tossed it on Byron Howard and Jared Bush’s desks and said, “There. Fixed it”.
It really has everything. Colombian culture with reverence and fun. A multi-ethnic cast. Songs with incredible appeal. Colors and animation that dazzle the eye. Therapy in recognizing intergenerational trauma more realistically depicted than I’ve seen in most movies. Heart and soul where it counts. Tropes and clichés avoided with surgical precision and grace. Humor in all the right places. It really has everything.
If you haven’t seen it yet, do so. If your ears are bleeding from hearing “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” on repeat, admit it’s a damn good song. If you’ve been burned by Disney’s lackluster attempts to imbue authentic culture into their animated feature canon, I think you’re going to be impressed. If you want to openly discuss interfamily drama but don’t know where to start, this is a great place to begin. This movie is a beautiful addition to the canon and I can’t really overpraise it. Nine bored capybaras out of ten.
I cannot over-request: DISNEY+! SERIES! STARRING! EACH! FAMILY! MEMBER! NOW!