Over the course of 59 animated entries, Walt Disney Animation Studios has come a long way, not just when it comes to the technology used to weave their classic tales, but in overall ability to simply tell a story. The 60th entry in the Disney animated canon, Byron Howard, Jared Bush, and Charise Castro Smith’s lavish “Encanto” feels like one of the Mouse House’s more emotionally complex animated features, even if its story ultimately tries too hard to wrap up that nuance in a very tidy bow.
Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) comes from an exceptional family — quite literally. A magic candle has blessed several generations of Madrigals with special powers, from super-strength to the ability to talk with animals. Unfortunately for Mirabel, she’s the only one without any said powers, causing strife between her and her Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero). When Mirabel starts to believe the magic in the candle is fading, she becomes determined to do whatever she can to save the family and its incredible legacy.
At the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles, a pre-show of clips from each of the studio’s previous 59 animated features was offered up as a means of celebrating “Encanto” as its latest in a long line of classic features. But seeing reminders of all those films, while celebratory on the surface, also highlighted how similar “Encanto” is to those dozens of other films, from “Meet the Robinsons” to “Beauty and the Beast.” Yet, that familiarity isn’t a detriment to the film, and often enhances (and sometimes even helps hold together) the story of Mirabel and the other magical Madrigals.
Disney films of the past have typically used fairy tale-esque elements to help their protagonist stand out. In “Encanto,” it’s Mirabel’s seeming normalcy that sets her apart from everyone else in her life. Here, we see Mirabel’s struggles to have autonomy and acceptance within her own family. Her parents, aunts, and uncles are good people, but they can’t hide their belief that Mirabel is different — especially her Abuela, who routinely tells her to stay out of the way for fear of causing further disruption to the candle and its life-giving powers.
“Encanto” may not be overtly about disability, but it’s impossible not to relate to it (and Mirabel) if you do come from a family where something about you is not perceived as “standard.” Despite how many people live in her magical casita, Mirabel is isolated, even having to sleep in the nursery because her lack of powers means she doesn’t have a hyper-magical bedroom of her own. Beatriz’s voice work perfectly suits a young woman who tries hard to put on a brave face and smile, but feels rejected constantly. For all Mirabel’s efforts to be the one who proves her worth, from being pleasant to taking care of the household chores, it never fills the void of constantly feeling less than average.
Yet, because the emotions within Mirabel’s own journey are so rich, the rest of the plot of the film tends to feel thin, even with built-in stakes, drama, and action seemingly ready to go at any moment. The candle’s magic is fading and the casita — and the entire family by extension — are under threat of being extinguished, and yet almost half of the film’s narrative focuses on Mirabel and her family dynamics before the actual action kicks in. Long past the film’s halfway mark, other characters are still being introduced, including Bruno (John Leguizamo), Abuela’s son whose gift of prophecy led to his banishment. It’s unfortunate that Bruno makes his appearance so late into the film, as he and Mirabel are two halves of the coin that need to work in unison.
Other supporting characters stand out, too, despite getting reduced screen time, often getting one good scene before being forgotten. Jessica Darrow’s work as Luisa, Mirabel’s super strong sister, is a particular delight, especially during a vibrant musical performance that includes dancing donkeys. Similarly, many of the musical’s songs are solid, though audiences will likely remember the specific scene they appear in — those dancing donkeys! — more than than their actual titles. It’s doubtful any of these will cross over to regular radio play.
Like “Raya and the Last Dragon” from earlier this year, “Encanto” boasts a similar life-like quality that’s stunning to watch. The Colombian setting and casita are lush and inviting but, more importantly, the distinction in the characters and their facial expressions is wonderful. Simply seeing Mirabel’s reactions to things around her occasionally comes off as if she’s a live-action feature, not a vividly animated one.
Despite the lingering worries of magical candles, it’s the relationship between Mirabel, Bruno, and their Abuela that truly forms the central conflict of the narrative. And yet, for all the deep feelings stemming from Mirabel’s attempts to be loved for who she is, “Encanto” ultimately solves these dramas far too cleanly. Hearing Mirabel being told by her grandmother how she’s ruined things can only inspire deep hurt, and it seems as if they entire clan has spent decades traumatized by a desire to be perfect for her. Mirabel’s sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is even willing to marry a man just because her grandma wants her to.
The film’s screenplay, written by Bush, Smith, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, does attempt to offer an exploration of how Abuela Alma became this way. Inevitably, it involves pain, trauma, and death. Has she provided for her family? Yes. Has she given them a beautiful life? Yes. But that doesn’t negate decades of everyone around her believing that her love is conditional.
Mirabel, who has had her entire sense of self-worth defined by not being powerful, has lived her life thinking her Abuela doesn’t care for her the same way she did when she was just a child. It’s very hard to undo all that with a simple apology. Yes, this is a Disney movie, but with a script that strives until the very end to say that you are defined by how you see yourself, it would have been been far more satisfying to end with something that implies you can’t fix years of trauma like magic, bu everyone can at least start with today. For those who look beyond the ready-made dramas of the film, “Encanto” is an emotionally wrought movie about the ways family can hurt us and how “normal” can be a four-letter word. That’s a lesson and a tone that doesn’t always come together, but at least provides a magical, impressive spark all its own.
A Disney release, “Encanto” will hit theaters on Wednesday, November 24.