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‘Encanto’ offers magical family fun

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Sixty films.

That’s the number reached by Disney Animation Studios with the release of their latest film “Encanto.” It’s a staggering figure, even when you take into consideration how long they’ve been in the business of making movies. From 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” until now, Disney has been creating animated wonder.

It’s literally generational – for over eight decades, families have been coming together to experience the magic of Disney animation. Kids who grew up on these movies have in turn shared them with their kids, who in turn would grow up to share them with their kids.

And so it’s appropriate that this latest entry would focus so thoroughly on those notions. Magic and family and the magic of family. That’s “Encanto.”

The film – directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard from a screenplay co-written by Bush and Charise Castro Smith, with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda – is a captivating exploration of what it means to be a family and the importance of maintaining those connections no matter what obstacles might arise, all refracted through a lens of magical realism.

It is charming and sweet; warm, feel-good family fun of the sort that we’ve come to expect from Disney. And while it might be on the slighter side, there’s no denying that viewers young and old will be swept up into this wondrous world – there will be plenty of laughs and yes, perhaps a few tears as well.

In the mountains of Colombia lives the Madigral family. Years ago, while escaping her home in an armed conflict, a woman and her three infant children are rescued from certain doom by a miraculous event, a candle endowed with magical powers (the titular Encanto). That candle creates a sentient house – dubbed Casita – in which they all may live.

A village grows around the house, a village served and protected by the ever-growing Madrigal family, overseen by Abuela (Maria Cecilia Botero). See, the nature of the magic is that each member of the family is endowed with a gift, a superhuman talent that makes them special. Abuela’s three children are the first receive those gifts – Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal with cooking; Pepa (Carolina Gaitan) can control the weather; and Bruno (John Leguizamo) can see the future. As the Madrigal children grow up, marry and have kids of their own, the next generation receives their own gifts.

All except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz).

Mirabel’s gift never came, leaving her the only member of her family without a unique power. Her older sisters both got them – the perfect Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who makes flowers bloom, and the sturdy Luisa (Jessica Darrow), who has super strength – as did her cousins, the shape-shifting Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz) and the super-hearing Dolores (Adassa). But Mirabel remains ordinary, an outcast much like her Uncle Bruno, though for very different reasons.

However, the night her young cousin Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers) gets his gift – he can speak to animals – Madrigal sees something that terrifies her. She sees cracks appear in Casita, visions of their beloved house crumbling as the magical candle flickers and threatens to go out. Her warnings are unheeded by her family, leading her to try and find a solution on her own.

This quest leads her to her Uncle Bruno’s room – long abandoned – in hopes of discovering what his final vision, the one that led him to flee the family, might have said. And when her fears come to pass – when the magic starts to fade – it is up to the ordinary Mirabel to accomplish the extraordinary, to save her family and reignite the magic.

“Encanto” is a sweet and culturally thoughtful animated adventure, a film that illustrates Disney’s recent commitment to exploring the experiences of other global communities. Its focus on family dynamics – positive and not-so-positive alike – give it a sense of universality to which most audiences will relate.

There’s an underlying goofiness to much of the action that carries broad appeal. For instance, the fact that the house is an honest-to-goodness character, one that is as distinct and engaging as any, lends itself to some entertaining set pieces. The film is packed with bits that embrace the lighter side of these talents – sight gags and throwaway lines and other jokes that will elicit laughs from viewers of any age.

Now, it’s true that the story meanders a little bit – Mirabel is a wonderful protagonist, but her journey feels a touch incomplete. One wonders if the narrative could have benefited from a bit more fleshing-out in certain respects. However, the sheer wattage of charm that emanates from our lead largely makes up for that narrative thinness.

The songs are solid, though there aren’t really any of the standouts that you sometimes get from Disney and/or Miranda. Still, you’ll be tapping your toes throughout – they’re all catchy, even if they aren’t necessarily destined for your playlist.

The voice cast is excellent. Beatriz is exceptional as Mirabel, finding a balance between courage and self-doubt that is compelling and relatable. Oh, and she can SING. Every other cast member has their moments, though there are a few that I found to be particular standouts – Guerrero and Darrow as Mirabel’s sisters are both wonderful, as is Botero as the imperious Abuela. Honestly, though, they’re all great. And yes, Disney mainstay Alan Tudyk turns up – he’s a toucan, because of course he is.

“Encanto” might not be the greatest of Disney’s 60 animated films, but it is more than good enough. There’s no denying its heartfelt nature, its deep investment in what it means to be part of a family. You’ll definitely laugh, and if you’re like me, you’ll cry a little too. All in all, I found it to be a truly magical experience.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 29 November 2021 10:47

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