Encanto is playing in cinemas nationwide now.
Over the past six years, Walt Disney Animation has expanded its cultural horizons. We had Moana’s exploration of Polynesian culture while Raya and the Last Dragon celebrated South Asia. It feels like a deliberate move away from the Eurocentric fairy tales of Tangled, Frozen, and arguably Zootopia. Not that those films are deficient in any way, it’s just their worlds are more regionally-reflective than global. Now, the studio has turned to Colombia, with Byron Howard & Jared Bush’s Encanto.
Encanto introduces us to the Madrigal clan, a family gifted with magical abilities due to a mystical candle bestowed to Abuela (Mariá Cecilia Botero). Here we meet mum Julieta (Angie Cepada), whose cooking heals all; Aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán), whose emotions control the weather; eldest sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who has Poison Ivy-like abilities. Then there is the second eldest sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow), with the biggest biceps ever seen in a Disney film; cousin Dolores (Adassa), who has super-sonic hearing, and finally Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). However, unlike the others, Mirabel has no powers, which could be the undoing of the family’s magic.
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Bush & Howard nail the extended family culture of Latin America, with each member making a solid impression through their vibrant personalities and visual flair. For me, Luisa is a stand-out favourite, mainly because of how built she is. For example, there’s a moment where she picks up an entire church like it’s nothing before placing it back down gently.
Encanto thrives on its vibrant Latin American energy, with the animation taking you to extraordinary places during many of its songs. And while the songs aren’t as memorable as Lin Manuel-Miranda may like, the backdrop and visual stories they embrace are. Here a cornucopia of natural delights and beauty surrounds us, from Isabela’s grand hall of Colombian Roses and Sugar Flowers to Luisa’s Herculean attempts to keep everything under control. There is no doubt Encanto continues to embrace the animated beauty we have come to expect from Walt Disney.
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Part of Encanto’s charm comes from its succinct dovetailing of style and substance, as it embraces the visual and sonic flair of Colombian culture through the Madrigal family – sprinkling in country-specific elements along the way like the capybaras and arepas. Here Encanto feels like a joyous celebration of Colombia and the heart of its culture, community. One that leaves you feeling warm inside.
There’s a noticeable effort to subvert the typical “leaving home to find yourself” story that Disney has become known for. In Encanto, Mirabel’s struggle cannot be solved by some country-wide quest; neither can it be solved through magic or deities. Instead, Mirabel’s struggle to connect with her family is all too real as she suffers under the weight of the expectation the family carry. Here the magic bestowed on the family can almost be seen as a curse and a blessing. It’s a very Disney theme to promote the mantra of “be the person you want to be”, but the way it’s captured in Encanto is far more subtle and nuanced than your typical family film.
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Of course, this subversion comes with a few caveats. For example, it feels like Encanto spends most of its time setting up and exposing the problems at the heart of the family while never allowing itself the time to tie everything up. This creates a strange feeling of how long the film has been running, impacting younger audience members as they wriggle in their seats. This may come from trying hard to subvert the expectations of the audience. I also found the songs slightly disappointing, as while Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Moana songs remain in my head even today, I couldn’t name a single Encanto song nor hum the melody a few hours after leaving the cinema. This may be because the songs feel too busy as five or six different vocalists vie for our attention.
Encanto continues Walt Disney Animation Studio’s excellent run of diverse storytelling, reflecting a more real-world than its older fairy tale cousins. In addition, its subversion of the typical Disney formula is welcome if slightly askew at times. But despite this, Encanto is undoubtedly a warming winter treat for the whole family.