ENCANTO (Movie Review)

An appealing heroine and vibrant visuals barely save a muddy mythos and middling songs.

**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for some thematic elements and mild peril)
Released: November 24, 2021
Runtime: 99 minutes
Directed by: Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Charise Castro Smith
Starring the voices of: Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Carolina Gaitan, Diane, Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama, Rhenzy Feliz

If the Madrigal family in Disney’s Encanto were the Brady Bunch, Mirabel would be their Jan.

Ensconced in the picturesque mountain lands of Colombia, the Madrigals are a magical brood — literally. As keepers of a candle that gives them special powers, each Madrigal has a unique metaphysical gift, whether it be super strength, the ability to heal, shape-shift, and so much more, including their collective mission to serve as mystical protectors and providers for the nearby town of Encanto. 

All except Mirabel.

Always feeling overshadowed by the gifts of her immediate and extended clan, Mirabel is inexplicably the only normal one. And so, of course, we’re about to go on a journey to discover how she (or anyone) doesn’t need magic in order to be special.

That’s all well-and-good, and the theme of not judging yourself against the strengths or blessings of others is certainly worthwhile, but the mechanics of that standard “displaced outsider becomes a hero and finds themself” formula feel more apparent here, less organic, inventive or surprising than the best Disney efforts. 

We get that sense right off the bat when the pre-title prologue and post-title opening song become a 1-2 punch of dense exposition. There’s a lot of setup for this mythology but, unfortunately, not enough follow-through.

When that magic becomes threatened, beginning with cracks that start to appear in their paranormally “alive” home (one akin to an Hispanic version of the Beast’s castle), Mirabel goes on a mission to prove she can save the family legacy and finally become of value.

What unfolds is a well-conceived plot as plots go, but it feels more orchestrated from a writers room worth of notes and beats than born of anything personal or original. 

The emotional moments are there, too, and some even effective (like the early bond between Mirabel and one of her little cousins, or subsequent ones in which we feel the lonely hopelessness of Mirabel’s marginalized status), but not enough to keep us consistently stirred or increasingly moved.

Thankfully, the film’s two biggest strengths are its central ones: Mirabel and the animation. Voiced by Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and rendered with adorable spunk, Mirabel is one of Disney’s more appealing heroines of the modern era. 

Genuinely endearing, Beatriz and the animators are more successful at giving Mirabel layers and personality than the script is, with a vibrancy that matches the visual spectacle of Encanto’s lush aesthetic. Indeed, one thing this movie doesn’t lack is color; its rich rainbow of pigments, tints, tones and hues are absolutely captivating (and boy did they pop in the Dolby Cinema I attended). 

Surprisingly, Encanto’s least appealing element is the songs from Hamilton songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like the plot, they feel more functional than inspired. And while each one bears Miranda’s signature sound, they play more as if someone good but less talented than Lin had been hired to affect his style. Miranda’s written better songs than these.

Down the stretch, the story’s mythology begins to show cracks of its own, as its rules become vague and ephemeral. Things evolve, shift and change (both good and bad) because the formula needs them to, not because there’s any apparent logic to how or why the magic is actually threatened or what, exactly, can restore it.

Thankfully the themes remain strong and at the fore, such as how trying to keep up appearances rather than facing problems head-on can create family dysfunction, or how “being perfect” can carry its own set of unhealthy burdens.

There are wise affirmations, too, such as coming to accept that maybe the very thing you’re most afraid of may not be something to fear at all, and that the greatest gift of all is not needing to be perfect but only to love and be loved.

As Walt Disney Studios 60th animated feature, Encanto is so accomplished that it feels a bit cynical to start picking it apart. Nevertheless, that’s what happens when a movie is a wonder for the eyes but not the heart.

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