I’ve made no secret that I don’t think much of the animation slate this year, which is a real shame. Most years the Animated Feature category is one that Disney and/or Pixar wins by default, with either a lack of realistic competition, or just lazy Academy voters. The game-changing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the last movie outside the House of Mouse to win, but before that, you have to go a full decade ago to Rango. Disney dominates the category, somewhat rightfully so, because they were the ones that started it all as far as feature length animation is concerned, and despite a few low periods here and there, animation has been the one consistently great thing about the company. Even now, as I rail against their corporate structure and their almost naked flaunting of how much they own us as a viewing public, I am more often than not still fairly enchanted by the animation side of the equation.
With the slim pickings this year, it looks like Disney will waltz (see what I did there?) to another win. So which will it be, Raya and the Last Dragon, Pixar’s Luca, or the most recent one to debut, Encanto? Obviously I can’t say for sure this early in the process, but if we’re going by pure quality of story, character, and art design, Encanto has it by a country mile.
The 60th film made by Walt Disney Animation Studios, this is not the first to feature Latin American protagonists. You can go all the way back to Donald Duck’s vignette adventures with Brazilian parrot José Carioca and Mexican rooster Panchito Pistoles from the 1940s with Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, or even more recently, The Emperor’s New Groove. But this is the first to be fully immersed in Latin American culture without outside influence, and featuring a majority Latin cast. Also, as lead actress Stephanie Beatriz notes, this is the first Disney cartoon with a main character who wears glasses, though I’m guessing that’s less of a benchmark. Hell, Sony beat them on that front just this year with The Mitchells vs. The Machines, and their output is less than half of Disney’s.
Anyway, disregarding any bit of history surrounding the film, the fact remains that it’s a very well put together movie, filled with fun characters, good humor, and some pretty amazing design. Even more remarkably, especially for a Disney film, the story is very self-contained, not just in raw plot, but in the setting as well. Most Disney movies — and most animated movies in general — are sprawling adventures that go to several locales spread across whatever universe surrounds the characters. But here, in a rare treat, we’re basically limited to the four walls of the family domicile, keeping things intimate, and yet still finding ways to make the scale more grand.
Beatriz voices Mirabel Madrigal, the third generation of her family, who lives in a magical house in Colombia. Years before, her grandmother, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), fled local warlords with her infant triplets, losing her husband in the process. Desperate, she prayed for a miracle, and it came in the form of a perpetually-burning candle with butterflies imprinted on it. Around the candle formed the house (and mountains to protect it, with space to build a town), which is at times the most lively character of the film. With its moving tiles and floorboards, it feels alive with personality, miming reactions to Mirabel throughout the film.
As part of the miracle, whenever a member of the Madrigal family comes of age, a special door is added to the house, which when opened by that person, grants them some magical power, which they must use in service to the family and the larger community built around them. Of Abuela Alma’s children, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) gained the power to control weather patterns based on her mood, Bruno (John Leguizamo) gained prophecy and foresight, and Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal people with her cooking.
Pepa has one daughter, Dolores (Reggaetón singer Adassa), who has hypersensitive hearing, and two sons: the shapeshifting Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz) and Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), who is about to come of age and receive his gift. Julieta had three daughters, Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who is presented as perfect — seriously, she looks like Tangled ‘s version of Rapunzel, only with darker skin and brunette hair — who can make flowers appear at will, Luisa (Jessica Darrow), who has superhuman strength, and Mirabel herself.
Of course, Mirabel’s main issue is what drives the entire film. When it came time for her to receive her gift, she never got one, and thus has always felt like an outsider to the rest of her family, even her non-magical father (Wilmer Valderrama). She asserts that she’s just as special as anyone else in her family, which even the local children note is her simply living in denial. Still, she wants to contribute as much as possible, though she continually doubts herself, and honestly, her family obliviously devastates her daily with backhanded compliments and putdowns that they don’t even realize are hurting her as much as they do (though Isabela is something of a Mean Girls-esque exception).
On the night of Antonio’s party, he does indeed get his gift — the ability to talk to animals — which brings relief to the rest of the family, as he’s the first to try for his gift since Mirabel was denied. However, as his personal room is created behind his door, Mirabel feels tremors and sees cracks forming on the walls of the house. She also notices the magic candle starting to flicker and dim, hinting that the miracle may be fading. When she brings this to Alma’s attention, she is chastised for trying to steal the spotlight from her little cousin. With no one to turn to, she takes it upon herself to find out what’s going on with the house and save the family. This means talking to her relatives in more intimate terms than she ever has before, which becomes a very clever way to turn interrogation into empathy. It also means finding Bruno, who disappeared after he saw a vision about Mirabel that made him paranoid.
There’s so much to enjoy about all of this. First off, Beatriz is fantastic as Mirabel. While she had a small role in In the Heights earlier this year, she’s best known as the assertive badass Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. That role alone is evidence as to why she’s such a great vocal talent, because Rosa’s voice is a complete affectation: gruff, stern, and low-pitch. Her normal voice is much higher, closer to Mirabel’s, and she uses this part to show off her range, both in speech and song. There’s pain and loneliness mixed with good humor and joy depending on the needs of the scene, and it never once feels tacked on.
Second, as I mentioned, the house — La Casita — is such a lively character unto itself without ever saying a word. Furniture and architecture dance, both figuratively and literally, as the humans move around it. And while it’s a big house, it’s still a small space overall, so characters crossing paths is unavoidable, and Dolores’ enhanced hearing is a deus ex machina on its own. The economy of space is handled very well here, from outdoor walkways and balconies to the crevices and crawl spaces within the house’s foundation.
And yet, the Disney animators found an absolutely brilliant way to make this world more expansive through the use of the gift rooms. Like a cartoon TARDIS, all of these rooms are “bigger on the inside,” giving each Madrigal (sans Mirabel) their own universe to live and play in. Antonio has a jungle full of animals, Isabela has an endless garden, and Bruno has an entire tower filled with rocks and sand for his prophecies. It’s environment design on a level rarely seen in such an overall lighthearted movie.
Equally as impressive is the character design and development. Given that most of the players have magic powers, it’s amazing that they’re not one-dimensional. Sometimes their powers are used for a quick visual gag (Pepa’s stress-induced storm clouds chief among them), but each ties into the individual family member’s personality, for both good and bad. Luisa likes to be relied upon, so she was given strength, but it can also be a burden she shoulders alone, because she fears letting people down. Camilo can mimic other people’s forms, but he’s very unsure of who he is as a person. This is what Mirabel helps to bring out as she goes about her insular quest. She has no gift, which makes her feel like she doesn’t belong, but she can also maintain objectivity, free from the responsibility that such a power requires. That forces her to be more sympathetic towards her loved ones, allowing her to get closer to them while trying to save them, which elevates her character development in turn.
I only really had two core problems with the film. The first is hard to discuss without going into spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that there are questions raised in this movie that are frustratingly left unanswered. It’s a bit annoying as a viewer to leave some of these details ambiguous, especially because the creators made up this world, this miracle, and the rules governing it. As such, it’s not like they don’t — or can’t — know the answers to the very questions they pose. This is a case where I’d rather have an unsatisfying answer than none at all.
The second is that the music, while well-written and performed, is mostly just sort of, meh. Honestly, I never thought I’d say that about songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and this is coming from a guy who’s never seen Hamilton. I’m just basing this on Heights and Moana. The man is an unequaled talent as a composer and songwriter, but a lot of the numbers in this film — of which there are only seven — just didn’t leave much of an impression.
This is largely for two reasons. One, the bulk of the songs are expositional. Mirabel introduces her clan with “The Family Madrigal,” which is upbeat and fun at times, but really it’s just four minutes of listing characters, and ends with a nonsensical turn where Mirabel dodges questions about her own gift (or lack thereof), seeing as how the song started with the local children asking her what her power was. How did she not think the question would be repeated after she just spent an entire musical number bragging about everyone else? After Alma scolds her at the party, we get “Waiting on a Miracle,” which is just a second-rate “Let it Go.” “Surface Pressure,” “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” “What Else Can I Do?,” and “All of You” are all basically just normal plot-driven dialogue put to music. It’s very nice-sounding music, I’ll grant, but most of the time it sounds like the melodic equivalent of the “All of this could have been said in an email” memes.
The other aspect that felt off for me with the music is one that I admit may just be a problem with me. I fully admit my white ass may just be ignorant with this, but all of those songs I just mentioned somehow also got turned into a Latin dance routine. Now, I have no problem with dance. Hell, I’m jealous that I have, like, none of the skills on display here, even by cartoon standards. But sometimes the visual doesn’t match the mood. A light, up-tempo song like “The Family Madrigal” does warrant some dance moves, as we’re establishing characters, environment, and mood. We want the scene as lively as possible. But to then have downer songs like “Waiting on a Miracle” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” also break in with it just seems out of place. Again, maybe I’m just ignorant of culture, but I would never think, “Man, this is some sad, heavy shit. Better throw in some samba.” It just felt odd.
Now, given that this is Miranda we’re talking about, and the Academy loves finding ways for popular artists to get in on the action (and he was denied a win for “How Far I’ll Go” a few years ago, losing out to “City of Stars” from La La Land), I can feel voters clamoring for a way to get him an Oscar next time around. As such, the likely nominee for Original Song would be “Dos Oruguitas,” which is the one exception to my complaints above. Performed by Sebastián Yatra (in Spanish during the main body of the film, in English during the credits), this song is subtle, passionate, and lyrical.
Even more noteworthy is how natural the song feels within the movie, even to someone like me who doesn’t speak Spanish. The visuals matching the song provide a lot of context, as the butterfly is a significant symbol of the Madrigal family. Now, I happen to know that butterfly in Spanish is “mariposa,” because it’s also the name of a county here in California. As such, when I hear words like “futuro,” which I can safely assume means “future,” I can put that with “mariposa” and deduce that “oruguita” means “caterpillar.” Figuring out that little bit of linguistics while Mirabel and Alma interact within the scene helps put a lot of the thematic pieces together, telling me it’s a song about growth and the necessity of change, even though I don’t understand but a small fraction of the words. That’s no small feat. And then when I hear it again in English, I can appreciate it all the more, and engage my own curiosity in trying to understand the nuance of the translation. That’s the beauty of a well-orchestrated song. There’s a universality within it where even when you don’t fully understand what’s being said, you understand the emotion being conveyed.
This is definitely the best of Disney’s animated output this year, be it under its main banner or Pixar. It’s rich, colorful, emotional, funny, and has great character and design work. The music leaves a bit to be desired — a rare shortfall for Miranda — but on at least one track, he came through when it counted, and it may be what gets him in the EGOT club. The story has solid lessons about self-worth and dedication to family, even though at times it has problems answering its own questions, and a lot of the first act contains some unnecessary piling on of Mirabel. But the spectacular voice work by Beatriz, Leguizamo, and the rest of the cast, combined with the innovative animation within the house itself, more than makes up for it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think is the best animated film of the year so far? If you were a Madrigal, what would you want your gift to be? Let me know!