Disney has taken on some big-picture topics with their recent films, be it racism (“Zootopia”), colonialism (“Frozen II”), or tribalism (“Raya and the Last Dragon”), but “Encanto” has its eye on something both deeply personal yet universal: the idea of what makes a person special. It’s tempting to scoff at the thought of a group of the world’s most talented artists, animators, designers, songwriters, and musicians telling its audience that they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves – or their children, more pointedly – when you know that they worked themselves to the bone to make this movie, but at the same time, where’s the lie?
Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) lives in a Colombian utopia, in which every member of her family has been granted a magical power through a, um, miracle candle. (Yes, a miracle candle. More on that later.) Every member, of course, except Mirabel, and there is scarcely a moment where her family members, innocently or not, make sure she knows how decidedly not special she is. When it’s time for Mirabel’s younger cousin Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) to discover his gift, she has visions of all of the magic in her family drying up. When she tries to tell her family what she saw, she is dismissed as someone who’s desperate for attention. Mirabel soon learns, though, that she’s not wrong, and it’s up to her, the powerless one, to save them all.
The film’s first three minutes are a lot to take in, stuffed with more exposition than all three “Austin Powers” movies combined, but this is a fantasy movie, and they needed to establish up front that the candle is a MacGuffin, much like the Ring in “Lord of the Rings.” Without it, there is no story. So, here is a miracle candle. It does not matter how it exists; it simply does.
The idea of Stephanie Beatriz anchoring a Disney musical might seem like a stretch for those who only know her as the deadpan Rosa Diaz on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” but Beatriz has done a metric ton of voice work in animation (“BoJack Horseman” and “Bob’s Burgers,” to name a couple), and she had a bit part in the musical “In the Heights,” so she is more than ready for her close-up. She has to hit a lot of emotional beats here – she and Antonio adore each other, but her siblings and elders, even though she loves them dearly, treat her with something between indifference and shame – and she doesn’t miss.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs, on the other hand, are mostly…fine. Opening number “The Family Madrigal” is yet another four minutes of exposition, detailing the special abilities of each family member, and it’s apparent that they knew they were shoving a lot of information into a small space. In between lyrical breaks, there are children telling Mirabel that they can’t keep it all straight, but more telling, Mirabel explains everyone’s ability a second time. “Waiting on a Miracle” is the film’s “I want” song, and it’s a doozy, while “Surface Pressure” (sung by Mirabel’s sister Luisa, played by Jessica Darrow) is meant to be the soundtrack’s comic relief, and it is, but in the saddest way. “What Else Can I Do?” is superfluous; that scene would have worked just fine without the song. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is Santana’s “Smooth” with “Les Miserables”-esque vocal layers. It’s busy, and catchy, and…fine.
What’s decidedly better than fine is the animation. It’s jaw-dropping, particularly the Madrigal family house, which is as alive as the people who live in it. Other Disney/Pixar films have created lush backdrops (“Coco” springs to mind), but the Madrigal house is a next-level technical achievement.
“Encanto” cleverly uses fantasy to tackle some complicated real-world subjects. Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect, and worse, why do we put even more pressure on our children to be better than we are? Why do we expect all children to bloom at the same time? Why are we so afraid to take time for ourselves? With any luck, “Encanto” will serve as a wake-up call that there is a better way of doing this life thing.(3.5 / 5)