Encanto Is the Best Disney Animated Film Since Frozen
We already know that Walt Disney Animation’s Encanto will probably be turned into a Broadway musical at some point, but watching the early scenes in Jared Bush and Byron Howard’s film, you might find yourself wondering whether that Broadway show already exists. Everything from the sets to the dance numbers feels like it must have originated on a stage. When characters sing, they sing to the camera: frontal, direct, with big gestures seemingly intended for a live audience. The central setting, a sentient house where the floorboards and roof tiles and staircases and window shutters magically throb and flutter and flap about on their own, feels ready-made for some crafty production designer to work their mechanical-theater wizardry. We can even hear the actors taking a breath before belting out passages from one of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Original Cast Album–friendly tunes. There’s an eager to please–ness to the first half of Encanto that feels odd, maybe even off — a theater-kid energy that can at times be overbearing and artificial.
Then, something startling happens. The film and its aesthetic open up. The performances become more unhinged and unpredictable, and the camerawork begins to defy gravity and logic. And we realize that the performative, Broadway-bound quality of the film’s earlier scenes was intentional. To some extent, the characters were performing, trying to keep up appearances.
Encanto follows a Colombian family named Madrigal, each of whose members possesses a unique magic power, the result of a miracle bestowed on the matriarch Alma (a.k.a. Abuela, voiced by María Cecilia Botero) after an early tragedy in her life. When he or she comes of age, each family member passes through a ceremony to discover their “gift.” There’s brawny Luisa (Jessica Darrow), who possesses superhuman strength; emotional Pepa (Carolina Gaitán), who can control the weather; princess-y beauty Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who can summon mountains of flowers at will; sensible Julieta (Angie Cepeda), who can apparently heal anything with her cooking. Everyone lives together happily in the family’s magical house — la casita — each given a room that opens up onto a world in which they can freely exercise their powers.
All except young Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who went through the usual initiation ceremony only to discover that she wasn’t gifted with any special powers. She’s still traumatized by the experience, even though she tries to paint a brave face on it. (“Maybe your gift is being in denial,” one kid quips.) She can tell that she disappointed Abuela, and in a relentlessly perfect family bound so tightly to tradition, her ordinariness feels like more than just a fluke. It might even be a threat. For the Madrigals, magic is not just a handy ability but also a source of community and continuity, the very thing that has kept them going for so long. What’s more, they’re constantly reminded that the village that’s been built around their wondrous casita also relies on their powers.
Needless to say, there will be a place for Mirabel — this is Disney, after all, and they don’t make movies about un-special people — and we begin to suspect that there’s more to her story when she senses the house starting to spring cracks and some others’ powers flickering. When she tries to warn everyone, they assume she’s jealous, or hysterical, or both. I won’t spoil what happens next, but it’s worth noting that Mirabel’s journey is a surprisingly intimate one, and on her emotional quest, she doesn’t stray too far from the place of wonder where her family lives.
That in turn places a lot of weight on the film’s visual and musical strategies.
Miranda’s songs are typically catchy and clever, and unostentatiously varied — they dabble in hip-hop, pop, salsa, acoustic ballads, and more, without ever feeling like they’re coming from different worlds — though who knows if there are any Frozen-level hits in there. (That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if some attention focused on the delightful “Surface Pressure,” a punchy little number which has Luisa singing about all the demands placed on her because of her strength: “Under the surface / I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus. / Under the surface / Was Hercules ever like, ‘Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus?’”) Special mention should also be made of Germaine Franco’s alternately jaunty and melancholy score, which rarely feels like incidental filler and works nicely in tandem with Miranda’s more boisterous numbers.
What makes Encanto so enchanting may well be this smaller-scale narrative, as the Madrigals’ inward journey gains an unusual, downright Sirkian power when crossed with the familiar Disney spectacle, and as the aforementioned theatricality of those earlier scenes gives way to something more cinematic. Here, the gee-whiz light shows, the cascades of sand, the swirling skies, and explosive bursts of colorful flora all serve to underscore a tale of self-doubt, family expectations, and the smothering need to maintain one’s façade. That may seem incongruous, but it winds up being enormously moving; I cried like a broken baby throughout the final third of the movie. It should not automatically thrill us when it turns out that the makers of an animated film have given serious, nuanced thought to their visual strategy, and yet we see so much uninspired animation coming from the studios nowadays that it does. Encanto might be the best Disney animated film since Frozen.