‘Encanto’: A tale of family and fitting in, set to music

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
“Encanto” is set in Colombia and features the Madrigal family and its special powers. The film compensates for shortcomings with gentle humor and Indiana Jones-style action.

In Disney’s animated musical “Encanto,” an ordinary teen struggles to fit into an extraordinary world.

Mirabel Madrigal lives in a house you won’t find on Zillow. Tucked into a mountain range, it’s a magical villa that bestows a unique power on each of its inhabitants. For example, Mirabel’s mother can heal others with her cooking. Her aunt controls the weather. One of her cousins is a shape-shifter. Her middle sister, Luisa, has superhuman strength. And Mirabel? She’s the only member of the family who doesn’t have a special gift. She’s like a Muggle at Hogwarts.

“Encanto” is set in a pre-computer era Colombia. Yet the magical realist story about comparing oneself to others seems tailored for today’s teens, who spend hours scrolling through images of seemingly perfect lives. Mirabel doesn’t need a social media feed to feel inadequate. She only has to glance across the courtyard to observe the graceful pirouettes of her oldest sister, Isabela, who can make flowers instantly bloom. Mirabel’s mother assures her that she’s special, too. Yet when the family gathers for a group photo, they neglect to include the youngest daughter. 

Why We Wrote This

“Encanto” takes place in a pre-computer era Colombia. But as Monitor Chief Culture Writer Stephen Humphries notes, the story about comparing oneself to others seems tailored for today’s social media-minded teens.

But – metaphor alert! – the villa’s impeccable facade is masking serious flaws. The magical home is a living entity. Its floors move like a conveyor belt and its staircase can transform into a slide. But cracks have started developing in the walls. When Mirabel expresses concern to her grandmother, the stern matriarch quickly shuts her down. And why won’t anyone talk with her about Uncle Bruno, the clairvoyant who disappeared years ago?

In “Encanto,” Mirabel Madrigal is on a quest to save her family’s house – and to understand what makes her special.

Before Mirabel can embark upon her quest to save the magic house, “Encanto” has to lay out its backstory. Plus introduce all 12 family members. It’s a lot to take in at once. An expository musical number, “Welcome to the Family Madrigal,” sets the vibrant tone of the movie. The song showcases the witty lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda. These days, the musical maven seems to be juggling more enterprises than Elon Musk: “Encanto” follows “In the Heights” and “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” as his third movie this year. Miranda’s wordplay here bops along to the polyrhythms of cumbia music, aided by the work of composer Germaine Franco. The melodies aren’t initially memorable, but the energy of the music complements the movie’s dynamic direction. When muscular Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow) sings “Surface Pressure,” a song about carrying hidden burdens, it’s accompanied by a kaleidoscopic, “Fantasia”-like dream sequence. We get to see Luisa literally move mountains. 

Throughout “Encanto,” directors Byron Howard, Jared Bush, and Charise Castro Smith utilize computers to create camera moves that not even a drone could pull off in the real world.

Thanks to the movie’s colorful palette, each frame pops like a firework. “Encanto” also sets a new benchmark in computer animation for its detailed renderings. You can almost count the individual threads in the characters’ ponchos. The ripples in the stucco walls are as tactile as Braille. Mirabel’s brown irises seem to contain galaxies.

The animated aesthetics are considerably more wondrous than the magical elements in the story. La Casita Madrigal aspires to be South America’s answer to Shangri-La. Yet the story lacks the imaginative surprises of the best fantasy tales. “Encanto” compensates with gentle humor – there’s something deeply hilarious about the indifferent expression of a capybara – and Indiana Jones-like action sequences. 

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “In the Heights”) is a winsome protagonist. The most fun character, however, is the eccentric Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who reappears. He helps his niece gain a whole new perspective on a family “so full of stars that everyone wants to shine.” As Mirabel learns to look beyond superficial appearances, she discovers her true place within the family constellation.

“Encanto” is rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril. The film is available in theaters as of Nov. 24 and will stream on Disney+ starting Dec. 24.

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