Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS), like most major animation studios, makes movies for families. Animated films are expensive, they take about 4-5 years to make, they need to appeal to a wide audience, and that means pulling in families. Doing this for decades has reinforced the notion that animated films are family films, and yet they’re rarely about families. Look at the last decade of WDAS pictures and while family is a part of the plot, they’re not really what the movies are about. Encanto changes that by making a family film that’s entirely about family. Directors Byron Howard, Jared Bush, and Charise Castro Smith use a big, joyous musical framework to explore how the expectations of family can distract us from what really matters in our familial relationships. With catchy tunes, gorgeous animation, and a lovely story, Encanto is another winner from Disney Animation.
Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero), her husband, and their three children fled persecution, and in their most desperate hour, prayed for a miracle. The miracle not only repelled those who sought to bring them harm, but also became the basis for an enchanted town in the mountains of Columbia. The miracle not only provides a magical house for the Madrigals but also gives each of them a unique power when they turn a certain age like the ability to change the weather or heal others. That is, every Madrigal receives a gift except Alma’s granddaughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). Mirabel tries to keep her spirits up and be a supportive family member, but when she discovers that the magic may be fading, she resolves to figure out the cause and save the Family Madrigal.
Not to spoil anything about Encanto, but I love that the movie isn’t about Mirabel discovering she had a gift all along because that kind of works at cross-purposes for what the movie is trying to do. As Mirabel investigates, she learns that these “gifts” have become almost curses for the family members who have them. Her sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has super-strength, but that has manifested as Luisa feeling like she always needs to be strong, never complain, and always carry the burden. Her other sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is “perfect”, but Mirabel learns that such a perception has made Isabela feel like she can never be creative or do anything other than create beautiful flower arrangements with her powers. And as for her uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), he disappeared and now no one even talks about him because his ability to see into the future caused so much strife.
I don’t know what you would call this problem (“toxic talent nurturing?”), but it’s a thoughtful approach where family identity becomes tied to what you can do rather than simply being a member of the family. That’s a tricky line to walk because it’s not like Mirabel is the “black sheep”; she’s not a screw-up, and she’s incredibly supportive and empathetic, but she’s also considered an “embarrassment” when the metric for being a good Madrigal is what you can do for the family and the town rather than being a good sister or daughter or cousin. For any family member who has ever felt outshined because they weren’t as “talented” as a sibling or cousin, Encanto comes in with a warm hug and says, “You are enough because family is enough.”
That comforting, heartfelt vibe flows through the entire film. The color palette is stunning, and it kicks into overdrive during the musical numbers where you can feel the animation team really letting loose and taking advantage of the medium where a traditional musical would be bound by setting. Encanto has no such problem and provides some the best musical numbers Disney has produced since The Princess and the Frog. With music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who never met a tune he couldn’t get stuck inside your head for weeks on end, Encanto still feels like its own musical entity rather than mimicking the music he produced for Moana or Hamilton.
It’s probably a cliché by now to say that Disney made a family movie with heart, but I don’t know what to tell you. They did it again. Encanto simply works as a great movie for families. I wish my in-laws could take their kids and grandkids to see it right now because I know they’d all have a great time and probably tear up a time or two. It may not be a groundbreaking statement to uphold the value of family for the sake of family, but Encanto manages to do it without forcing an antagonist or doubling back on its thesis that Mirabel doesn’t need a superpower to be special. At a time when people are trying to argue that they’re “brands” and they’re constantly trying to prove their “value” by making the catchiest social media post, it’s really nice that there’s a movie that says you have value not because of a talent but because family means never having to be in a talent competition.
Encanto opens in theaters on November 24th.
KEEP READING: ‘Encanto’ Character Posters Show off the Magical Powers of Familia Madrigal